Theology as Science or as Law

I said I would stop talking on this topic, as I wish not to give scandal to the heathen overhearing our friendly (or unfriendly) debate between denominations, but a response to a follow up question to the Parable of the Arbiters I hope will be allowed by way of epilog.

It is not surprising that the opinion of Protestantism arose in the Sixteenth Century, which was the century when science grew to unprecedented heights of prestige in the intellectual circles of the day. Luther and Calvin invented a theology that was almost a parody of science, insisting, as (for example) no jurist studying law would insist, that the individual conscience and conviction was paramount over what had been established by the authority and precedent qualified to do so.

If I may extend the metaphor: Lutherans can see Luther as a foreshadow of Einstein, willing to set the entire field of his study on its ear, but instead of appealing to the authority of nature in experimentation (as Einstein famously did during the solar eclipse of 1912)Luther appealed to the authority of the Bible, which he took to be an authority objective and neutral enough to judge between him and the world of Christendom, and yet was an authority recognized by both parties.

Orthodoxy perhaps sees Luther more in the mold of some crazed activist judge, perhaps Judge Frank Johnson in United States v. Montgomery County Board of Education (1969). His Honor is not doing science, he is merely setting aside the precedents and constitutional authority meant to deal with the case before him, and making up something out of his own feverish imagination because of the indignation of his conscience.

(Whether one agrees with the moral argument that busing is just and practical and necessary, no sound legal argument can be made that federal judges establishing population quotas in municipal schools based on race ratios is one of the limited and enumerated powers of the Constitution granted to the federal judiciary.)

Luther, in effect, held that one man, armed with right reason, a copy of the Bible and the Holy Spirit, can legally overrule the decisions of the Ecumenical Councils of the last fifteen centuries before him.

If you see the difference between science and law, it is right and proper for a scientist to appeal to nature (or a philosopher to appeal to reason) and defy anyone who disagrees, even if the whole world disagrees; but it is wrong for a judge to rewrite the statues, the common law and the Constitution to suit himself, or to decide what the law is when the lawfully seated legislature, the precedent of all previous cases, and the Founding Fathers disagree. They are not just anyone.

If theology is a scientific discipline operating by similar rules to science, then Luther is like a revolutionary scientist, and his bravery applauded.

If theology is a jurisprudential discipline operating by similar rules to law, then Luther is an revolutionary anarchist or successionist. He is a juror who thinks the determinations of competent authorities properly vested with authority can be overturned by anyone whose conscience cannot consent to the ruling. In such a case, his bravery is mere defiance.

Why, then, can a theologian overrule the determinations of Ecumenical Councils? The concept, from a legal point of view, is absurd. The Ecumenical Councils determine the theological issues and make a final decision. After that the issue is closed.

For if there is no way to close an issue, then no one in the Church need agree with anyone on any point, not even the fundamentals, and we would all in effect be universal Unitarians.

Since the one thing that makes Christianity different from paganism and even Jewry is the concept of a shared and authoritative body of doctrine, I don’t think any mainstream Christian can hold to the opinion that all baptized believers can rewrite and reinterpret the Nicene Creed, the canon of scripture, and all dogmas of the faith each man as shall seem right in his own eyes.

For better or worse (and I think it far, far to the better) Christianity is the one institution which invented or at least perfected the idea of orthodoxy. Nothing else has the conception of a shared and authoritative body of dogmas dogmatically taught and believed. Christian Scientists are true Christians because they expel and anathematize dissenters and heretics. Unitarians are not true Christians because they do not and cannot: they have no body of doctrine from which to dissent. (Leftists, oddly, by this definition are true Christians, because they do have dogmas and doctrines and mechanisms of anathema to suppress dissent, albeit one of their dogmas is that they have no dogmas, merely a truth obvious to all mentally awake and morally straight observers. Mohammedans likewise. The Jewish race occupies a unique position in this as in all things, but a Jew born a Jew cannot be excommunicated from the faith, because the communion of faith is not the only tie that binds them into one people.)

And yet just this week a vehement amateur theologian was arguing with me as if *I* could overturn the decision of Seventh Council of Second Nicaea AD 787 (the decision that iconoclasm was anathema) or as if I had the right to withdraw my fealty from the Church if a sufficiently convincing argument were made that the Council decided wrongly.

Good grief! I think the Montgomery case was wrongly decided. I think Dred Scott was wrongly decided. I think Alcoa was wrongly decided,and I thought Roe v Wade was the very worst piece of pretzelheaded legal reasoning I had ever seen, and that was way before I was an antiabortionist. Need I go on?

Yet it is unlawful for me to withdraw my fealty from the United States government for any cause other than the foundational cause: “But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government.”

Which means that a short train of abuses and usurpations only erratically pursuing the object of a limited despotism shall arise, then it is not our right to overthrow the government.

If this is the rule for merely a secular state erected for the worldly convenience of smugglers and dissenters, why, should not my fealty to divine institutions erected the will and command of Providence be afforded greater latitude before I take up arms and fly the Jolly Roger?

If you laugh or shake your head in weary scorn, dear reader, I suspect this is because you do not see the question as a legal one, but as a scientific or philosophical one. If you ask me, “what is truth?” you pose a deep philosophical question, and if I answer with a question, “who teaches the truth with authority?” no doubt you think I have changed the subject. No, I merely unearth the hidden assumption where we differ.

You see, the amateur theologian was arguing like a scientist: he was urging me (as he saw it) to look through Galileo’s telescope and discover for myself to my own satisfaction that Second Nicaea was wrong, whereupon I could make up my own mind on the issue, bound only by my conscience and my loyalty to the Holy Spirit.

I was urging him (as I saw it) to set aside the telescope and read the lawbook, where, in black and white, it is all written out what means we shall use to settle these disputes, and who has authority to settle them, and our loyalty to that authority is likewise bound by my conscience and my loyalty to the Holy Spirit.

I seemed wrongheaded to him, because, unlike the dispute about Global Warming and Darwinism, you do not settle scientific issues by the votes of politicians; he seemed wrongheaded to me, because, unlike disputes about Socialism and Eugenics, you do not settle legal issues by observation, experimentation, or by reference to the authority of science.

(As it turned out, I was not patient enough with him to drill down to this more fundamental layer of dispute, for which I take the blame, because the question is one that merits sober and careful debate. The poor man was trying to ask me my epistemology on the issue, and I kept huffing at him that I had answered his question, which, in fact, I had not. He was asking me about this very point.)

This is but analogy, and I hope no misleading one, since theology is neither a scientific nor a jurisprudential discipline, and has elements of both and more besides, since it is the mother of both and more besides.