Chapter IV : On Deference to Authority

Salmon is anxious that it shall not be supposed that, in repudiating the notion of infallibility, he rejects all deference to authority in the sphere of religious doctrine:

"On the contrary, we think it every man's duty, who has to make a decision, to use every means in his power to guide his judgment rightly. Not the least of the means is the instruction and advice of people better informed than ourselves"; thus a clergyman may expect deference for his theological opinions from a layman "just so far, and no more, as he has given more and more prayerful study to those subjects than the layman has." [80]

It will be observed, and indeed Salmon insists on the point, that the authority of the clergyman is in no way derived from his office as a minister of the Church, but simply from his prayer and study. The theme is taken up below:

"God has made the world so that we cannot do without teachers. We come into the world...dependent on the instruction of others for our most elementary knowledge. The most original discoverer that ever lived owed the great bulk of his knowledge to the teaching of others....Boys will not respect a teacher if they find out that he is capable of making mistakes....But you know that the teacher's infallibility is not real....With respect to the teaching of secular knowledge, Universities have a function in some sort corresponding to that which the Church has been divinely appointed to fulfill in the communication of religious knowledge....The whole progress of the human race depends on two things -- human teaching, and teaching which will submit to correction....I maintain that it is the office of the Church to teach; but that it is her duty to do so, not by making assertion merely, but by offering proofs; and, again, that while it is the duty of the individual Christian to receive with deference the teaching of the Church, it is his duty satisfy himself of the validity of her proofs." [81]

The position adopted by Salmon in the above quotations is somewhat different from that earlier stated, in which it appeared that a single intelligent man, presented with a vernacular Bible, could determine what doctrines were contained in Scripture. It is worth dwelling on the present re-statement of Salmon's attitude to authority, as it, or something like it, has become common in certain non-Catholic circles, especially since the belief in Scripture's inerrancy has been so widely abandoned.

Authority of "Theologians" and "Offering Proofs" of Doctrine

It will be observed that the difference between Salmon's view and the Catholic position is that, according to the Catholic Church, it is the duty of the Church to "offer proofs" not of her several doctrines, but of her commission to teach as the representative of Christ, whereas Salmon requires her to offer proofs of each several point in her doctrine. Salmon will believe in the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Blessed Sacrament, and indeed in the supreme jurisdiction of the Pope, if the Church can offer convincing demonstration of the truth of each of these doctrines. And meanwhile, he has an intellectual respect for the Church (by which he does not mean simply the Catholic Church, but something more comprehensive), not because of its divine commission to teach mysteries, but because it is the home of theological learning, in much the same way as a university is the home of all learning. Some modern representatives of this point of view would add that, there being no complete demonstration of the truth of the traditional mysteries of the faith, none of these is to be accepted by the individual with complete and irreformable certainty. This, I think, is substantially the position of "liberal" Christians, though some of them would perhaps say that God's existence, at least, is completely certain, and the Godhead [divinity] of Christ practically certain.

My first comment on this attitude to theological authority is that, even as stated by Salmon, it will take us beyond the position at which he stops short. The authority of any individual theologian is great in proportion as it coheres with the authority of others. The enquirer is not justified in restricting his deference to any one Protestant theologian, or to Protestant theology en masse. He must look beyond the limits of Protestantism and he will soon find that Christian theology gravitates to Catholicism as to its centre. [82]

"Heresies Have No Theology"

Indeed there is a sense in which theology as a living progressive and developing system of thought is only to be found in Catholicism. "Heresies had no theology" was the somewhat rhetorical verdict of Cardinal Newman in one of the last sermons preached by him in an Anglican pulpit. While "Catholicism" is fertile in harmonious intellectual developments, this cannot be said of heresy. On the contrary (says Newman):

"Its dogmas are unfruitful; it has no theology; so far forth as it is heresy, it has none. Deduct its remnant of Catholic theology, and what remains? Polemics, explanations, protests. It turns to Biblical criticism, or to the evidence of Religion, for want of a province. Its formulae end in themselves, without development; because they are words; they are barren, because they are dead. If they had life, they would increase and multiply; or, if they do live and bear fruit, it is but as 'sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death' [James 1:15]. It develops into dissolution; but it creates nothing, it tends to no system, its resultant 'dogma' is but the denial of all dogmas, any theology, under the Gospel. No wonder it denies what it cannot attain." [83]

[In illustration of the penultimate sentence, it may be permissible to quote from the D.N.B. account of Salmon: He "founded no school of theological thought....his genius being analytic and deductive rather than constructive and synthetic; but his tendency was towards a liberal evangelicalism, which distrusted (and more and more as years went on) the appeal to any authority other than that of the individual conscience."]

But I confess that, for my own part, I find this picture of a Christianity in which doctrinal authority is vested solely in theologians as such, singularly unattractive; especially at a time when by theologians is often in fact meant primarily biblical critics. It is to me more suggestive of Pharisaism ("I give thee thanks, Father, that thou hast concealed these things from little ones, and hast revealed them to the wise and prudent"; "God has chosen the wise things of this world to confound the foolish") than of historical Christianity or the temper of the Gospel.

"Spensian" Belief and Practice

Yet it is a position to which those who desert Catholic authority can in fact tend. Still, I think Salmon's case could be re-stated in a less objectionable form. Suppose we say that doctrinal authority resides not in the theologian but in the "religious experience" of all the faithful. This was the position adopted by Sir Will Spens (if I have not misunderstood him) in a fascinating book entitled Belief and Practice. Religion, it was there suggested, is a mode of human behaviour and experience, and it is reasonable to suppose that, by and large, it reflects the realities of the spiritual sphere with which, by its nature, it claims to hold communion. If, for instance, the various kinds of belief in a god or gods, and indeed in "spirits" or even mana, can be shown to be, scientifically viewed, variations upon the type-notion of ethical monotheism, and if ethical monotheism both explains and mediates religious experience in a superior way, then we may say that belief in ethical monotheism is as reasonable as the hypothesis of uniformity which is at once the postulate and the verdict of our experience of the material world. (This is in fact a re-statement in a more attractive and perhaps more cogent form, of the argument from the "consent of people" which has its place in traditional natural theology).

Similarly, it may be shown (though here I pass in some measure perhaps beyond Sir Will's explicit statements) that religion naturally possesses or tends towards the idea of revelation, and the idea of incarnation is the type-form of the idea of revelation. The same line of argument will lead us to conclude that belief in sacrifice and sacrament has its place in religion, and that religion is a social, corporate "experience", tending to the Church form.

I personally think that there is a great deal of value in this line of apologetic. This only thing is, that it takes one straight, and (in my judgment) inevitably to the Catholic Church. For just as ethical monotheism is the goal towards which all belief in gods tends; and just as incarnation is the full realization of the idea of revelation; so undoubtedly, and in the same way, the Catholic Church is the full realization of the idea of a sacramental, hierarchical, sacrificial, and dogmatic religious society.

Sir Will Spens undoubtedly saw that such was the tendency of his arguments, but he stopped short in his book (paradoxically as it seemed to me) at a somewhat liberal version of Anglo-Catholicism. His reasons for so doing would have appealed to Salmon. He argued that the Catholic Church was unacceptable because, by its doctrine of an infallible teaching Church, it undermined the very presupposition of his argument, namely, the normative function of the religious experience of mankind as a whole, and especially of course of theists, Christians and those who in a broad (Spensian) sense may be described as Catholicising rather than Protestant Christians. It undermined this presupposition because it sought to force religious experience along certain lines and to prevent free experimentation.

Response to "Spensian" Authority

On this I would offer two comments: (1) An argument which leads logically to a conclusion fatal to its own premises is usually regarded as having started from vicious premises. In other words, if the Catholic Church is ruled out of court, there must be something wrong with the whole business of an appeal to general religious experience, since that appeal leads us (it seems) inevitably to the Catholic Church. (2) But in fact I deny that the doctrine of an infallible teaching Church contradicts the principle that general religious experience is a guide to right belief. On the contrary, two or three things seem clear:

(a) The religious experience of the faithful is regarded by Catholic authority as a most valuable guide to doctrine development; (b) the "instinct" of the faithful is to look for or to depend upon an infallible magisterium -- if it were not so, the Catholic Church would not be the immensely vigorous and powerful thing it is today. This instinct and its effects are part of the data that go to constitute what we have summed up under the name of "general religious experience"; (c) willing submission of the faithful to the teaching of a magisterium claiming infallibility mediates to them in a peculiar degree not only religious experience in general but the ability to think theologically.

St. Therese of Lisieux is only one, though an outstanding, example of a Catholic whose holiness, Christ-likeness, was peculiarly dependent upon the unquestioning acceptance of the final authority of the Church not only by herself but in her environment. And a series of convert thinkers from Augustine to Newman, illustrates the stimulating effect on theological thinking of the acceptance of infallibilistic Catholicism.

Salmon's Appeal Leads to Catholicism

The deference to authority inculcated by Salmon seems then, whether the appeal is to theologians as such or to general religious experience, to lead straight to the Catholic Church and therefore to an infallible authority. We begin with a deference falling short of submission and we end with a submission which transcends but does not contradict our starting point. Not entirely otherwise does the created universe point us beyond itself ("since to him that heareth, all these things say: We did not make ourselves, but he made us who abideth for ever" to quote St. Augustine, Confessions ix,x); so too the human quest for the divine points us on to the divine quest of man in revelation. (Possibly, other illustrations could be added. Christ was at once the "ideal Israel" and Israel's God....)

I do not think that I shall be expected to deal at length with the remainder of this chapter in which Salmon turns to the writings of St. John Chrysostom to prove that the early Church encouraged its members to read the Bible. The whole purpose of this lengthy discussion is apparently to show that (a) the early Church cannot have believed in her own infallibility, otherwise she should not have urged her members to study the Bible, and (b) the Church of Rome is very wise, on its own unprimitive premise of ecclesiastical infallibility, in deterring her members from this study. I have already dealt with the accusation implied in (b).

St. John Chrysostom and "Bible Reading"

As regards the fourth century Church's belief in her power to define the Christian faith -- and therefore in her infallibility -- it may be observed that about sixteen years before the consecration of John Chrysostom as Bishop of Constantinople the peace of the Church in the Eastern half of the Roman Empire had been established by the Council of Constantinople (AD 381, this Council is now reckoned as the second Ecumenical) on the basis of the "Nicene faith" : and it will be remembered that the Nicene faith was crystallised in the word "consubstantial", which was not scriptural, and to which objection had even been taken on the ground that it was untraditional. [84]

When Salmon concludes, from his quotations of St. John Chrysostom, that though the Fathers of the fourth century may not have been "English Protestants of the nineteenth...they thoroughly agree with us on fundamental principles" whereas the principles of the Church of Rome are different, [85] it seems unnecessary to say more than that such statements are so extravagantly wide of the mark as to reflect little credit on Salmon's historical sense. The fundamental principle of fourth-century Catholicism was that the Church was a society, an organized body; and that the Christian faith was the corporate faith of this body, not the theological opinions of an individual or a local Church exercising unfettered freedom of judgment upon its constituent articles.

(biblicalcatholic.comments: Anglican historian J.N.D. Kelly Early Christian Doctrines, page 402, says "Chrysostom, for example, states [Eph hom 11,5; 1 Cor argum; Matt hom 54,2; illud 'Vidi dom' hom 4, 2; 1 Tim hom 11,1] that the Church is the bride which Christ has won for Himself at the price of His own blood. Unity is its outstanding characteristic, the bond which holds it together being mutual charity, and the schisms which split it asunder are just as pernicious and blameworthy as the heresies which distort its faith. The Church, he holds, is Catholic, that is to say, spread throughout the whole world; it is indestructible and eternal, the pillar and ground of the truth [1 Tim 3:15]. After the canonization of the Constantinopolitan creed in 381, the predicates 'one', 'holy', 'Catholic', and 'apostolic' came to be regularly applied to the Church." Also Kelly, page 191: "What these early fathers were envisaging was almost always the empirical, visible society; they had little or no inkling of the distinction which was later to become important between a visible and an invisible church.")


ENDNOTES for Chapter IV: On Deference to Authority

[80] S, 18. [81] S, 35-42. [82] And indeed that all the theological thinking of mankind tends in that same direction. [83] Newman, University Sermons [1918], 138. [84] It had been part of the theological vocabulary of Paul of Samosata, condemned as a heretic by a Council at Antioch in the latter half of the previous century. [85] S, 49.

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See also March/May 1901 issues of Irish Ecclesiastical Record replying to Salmon, about 50+ pages! (PDF)

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