Response to an Argument Trying to Save the Catholic Position on Scripture.

I was looking at the blog which has the conversion story of Stewart, and I found this article. There is something in it trying to resurrect the Catholic position from the battering ram of linguistics. Of course, one of the classic refutations of the Catholic position is that, if you need an infallible interpreter to interpret scripture, then you still have to interpret the interpretation that the infallible interpreter gives. Thus, you end up in infinite regress. The author of this article, Bryan Cross, gives the following attempted reply:

The problem with this dilemma is that it ignores the qualitative ontological distinction between persons and books, and so it falsely assumes that if a book needs an authoritative interpreter in order to function as an ecclesial authority, so must a living person. A book contains a monologue with respect to the reader. An author can often anticipate the thoughts and questions that might arise in the mind of the reader. But a book cannot hear the reader’s questions here and now, and answer them. A living person, however, can do so. A living person can engage in genuine dialogue with the reader, whereas a book cannot. Fr. Kimel talks about that here when he quotes Chesterton as saying that though we can put a living person in the dock, we cannot put a book in the dock. In this respect, a person can do what a book cannot; a person can correct global misunderstandings and answer comprehensive interpretive questions. A book by its very nature has a limited intrinsic potency for interpretive self-clarification; a person, on the other hand, by his very nature has, in principle, an unlimited intrinsic potency with respect to interpretive self-clarification. This unlimited potency with respect to interpretive self-clarification ensures that the hermeneutical spiral may reach its end. A book cannot speak more about itself than it does at the moment at which it is completed. A person, by contrast, remains perpetually capable of clarifying further any of his previous speech-acts.

First of all, a book does *not* contain a monologue with respect to the reader. This is a grossly simplistic view of language. A book, like any other discourse, relates to reality. Hence, a text [especially one as long as the Bible] presents a worldview, that is, it presents a system of thought. As a person goes from text to context, they are interacting with the ideas in the text, and either submitting to the intention of the text, or rejecting the intention of the text. It is precisely this back and forth between the world of the text and the reader that creates the very kind of dialogue that Mr. Cross doesn’t believe exists.

Secondly, and unfortunately, the notion that “a book cannot hear the reader’s questions here and now, and answer them” is misleading. If you mean that it cannot *physically* hear them, then, obviously, that is correct. However, the text itself has illocution, and thus, intention. The text also presents a view of reality. Hence, when we look at a problem today, we look at the world of the text, and see what the text intends to communicate about that aspect of reality.

For example, what does the Bible teach about the tragic situation that resulted in the death of a man at the Texas Rangers’ baseball stadium last year? Does it mention baseball stadiums? No. Does it mention railings at the end of upper decks? No. However, it does mention protecting human life in high places such as a roof, and the intent of the text is, very clearly, that we should protect human life from dangerous falls. This is because it relates back to the commandment “thou shalt not murder.” All of this can be arrived at using intertextuality and intention. Can it answer questions in the here and now? It can answer that question, and it is in the here and now.

Also, is it really true that “In this respect, a person can do what a book cannot; a person can correct global misunderstandings and answer comprehensive interpretive questions?” What Cross fails to realize is that with every answered question, you create another question. For example, let us say that person A says X, and person B says “I don’t mean that. I mean Y” Now, you have to assume that person B has the correct interpretation of X. Hence, if you ask a question, how do you know that the person to whom you are asking the question has understood you properly? More than that, when they give Y, how do you know you have properly understood their clarification? The fact of the matter is, if you didn’t understand the initial statement, then how do you know you understand the clarification? The problem is, the more words you give, the more questions of interpretation you have. Such is the case with clarification.

The main point that Cross is missing is that the postmodern views of language upon which he is relying to say that Sola Scriptura is wrong because of the many different interpretations is the very thing that destroys intrinsic potency for interpretive self-clarification in *any* context-book or person. Such clarification depends upon the notion that, just because there may be multiple interpretations that one could come up with, that does not mean that you cannot arrive at the correct interpretation. We assume that both when we speak, and when we read, and language is founded on that very thing.

Furthermore, even though he is not right, let us grant for a moment that he is right. Now, Cross has just destroyed all the fields of the humanities. Egyptologists, now, cannot come to the correct interpretation of the Shipwrecked Sailor because there are different interpretations of it. Assyriologists cannot come to the correct interpretation of Enuma Elish, because there are different interpretations of it. Classicists cannot come to the correct interpretation of Homer’s Iliad because there are so many different interpretations of it. If the Protestant position upholds the study of ancient texts such as these, and the Catholic position makes nonsense out of the study of ancient texts, which view makes sense out of reality? Obviously, the Protestant view.

Also, Cross completely misses the infinite regress of his statement when he states that “A book cannot speak more about itself than it does at the moment at which it is completed. A person, by contrast, remains perpetually capable of clarifying further any of his previous speech-acts.” The problem is that any clarification is going to be a previous speech act. However, given the possibility of multiple interpretations of a given speech act, this means that the interpreter will have to continue to interpret his speech acts ad infinitum. Exactly how does that avoid the infinite regress?

The real problem with this argument is it views a text as wholly impersonal. It is true that a book is not an animate object. However, as Kevin Vanhoozer has rightly said, the text preserves an artifact of the author’s intentions and worldview. What I find interesting is how Cross’ argument really parallels the “death of the author” position of Derrida, who would likewise treat the text of scripture in this fashion. As I said in my last post, that raises major ethical issues with someone who tries to kill the author [in this case, God] and replace the author with the Church of his choosing. It is, in essence, a bearing of false witness against God himself. However, in so doing, the denier of Sola Scriptura must destroy interpretation of *all* language. In other words, the only consistent Roman Catholic is a silent Roman Catholic.

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