Saturday, May 15, 2010

Textual Realism and Philosophical Realism

In my endless ruminations over the Reformation and amidst the constant disquiet of my heart and mind, I've been thinking about an important issue.

Catholicism affirms philosophical realism, where free agents who participate in Being are able to access the objective truth through their senses. It argues against any Cartesian or Berkeleyan attempt at undermining the reliability of the senses, or (at least after Thomas) a prioritizing of Platonic spirit over matter (see Transubstantiation).

One famous Lutheran rationalist Immanuel Kant, argued for subjectivism, that is, each person is only able to see from their own perspective. A person cannot be objective because they are a subject, and they can only know what they empirically see or can rationally prove. Catholicism reacts against this because it holds the priority of the objective metaphysical reality of Being, over and above the individual subjective and existential experience.

However, there is one area they seem to despise objective reality. Scripture. As a Roman Catholic I remember arguing with someone over exegesis, and exasperated they simply said: no matter what this verse says, there is no way that you can or would ever interpret it differently than the Church teaches you must. The Protestant was arguing that Scripture had an objective meaning and that we as subjects could understand it. By contrast I had to argue that Scripture is by nature murky, unclear, and has a hidden meaning that only the Magesterium can truly discover and declare.

The perfect example is my oft-repeated complaint about concupiscence, and where St. Paul calls it "sin" and Trent says that even though the apostle says sin, it is not formally "sin". Or perhaps the admonision of St. Paul that a bishop should be the husband of one wife, where the Magesterium declares that a bishop should not be the husband of one wife.

So as I ponder this, I'm starting to wonder who the real Realists are? It seems like we are just so many Cartesian exegetes, while claiming to be the children of St. Thomas in all other areas.


  1. Thomas is great to read directly and see the dynamic and adversarial way in which he thinks. What are his questions, what objections does he include? What evidence does he use? He says some things that just blow me away. Systematic Thomism blunts his provocative edges and rip him out of his patristic seabed. And because he draws upon Scholasticism, Descartes easily seduced many Catholics - especially the intellectuals and theologians. The notion that Scripture has mainly a hidden meaning is indeed terribly gnostic and not very Catholic (despite it being a theme in a certain strain of Catholic polemics).

  2. I just started reading up on the period of theological reflection called Protestant scholasticism. One of the Protestant scholastics, Francis Turretin seems to be working from a realist Aristotelian metaphysic, similar to Thomas. You should check him out.

  3. By the way, in the interest of full disclosure, I consider myself a realist. Although, I do not go with Thomas's theory that there is an ontological union between God and man. I see the relationship of divine and created being as analogical, with a fundamental Creator-creature distinction.

  4. Jay, I'm not a Scholastic or a Thomist, so I'm not sure what you mean by 'ontological union' here. I know that there's a hypostatic union between God and man in the person of Jesus Christ. I also know that Balthasar said that Jesus is the analogy of being in person. The fundamental difference between God and man is that God is the creator and man is gift. Balthasar also pointed out that this analogy contains within it an 'ever greater dissimilarity.' Thus we truly know God through the tangible world which he created and proclaimed to be good (and preeminently through the door of Jesus), and yet God is ever beyond what we know. Gregory of Nyssa expresses this perspective quite beautifully: Those who run toward the Lord will never lack space… One who is climbing never stops, he moves from beginning to beginning, according to beginnings that never end. (reminds me a bit of Narnia).

    To be frank – and returning to the original question of Scripture – I'd say that in the case described above (a Protestant appealing to the 'plain sense' of Scripture vs. a Catholic who believes that the Magisterium is the beginning and end of biblical interpretation), both the Catholic and Protestant are acutely blind to the ever greater of the Lord. Reading scripture is possible for the ordinary Christian (the Catholic Church commends it!), and this understanding can be explored through seeing how the different books relate to each other and through various methods of study. And to be sure, the Magisterium here and there will mark a positive or negative point (the Bible does teach the primacy of Peter and doesn't teach that Jesus only appeared to suffer, etc) . Jesus said that "heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away." I have come to see that as much as I can understand of scripture, the Lord always has something new to say to me. I've heard many readings over and over in my life (and read them in the Liturgy of the Hours, or in private prayer, etc). I can honestly say that I'm always surprised with something new, and even more now than 20 years ago...

  5. Fred- What I mean by ontological union is that, according to Thomas, humanity participates in the divine essence. He writes:

    "Nothing can act beyond its species, since the cause must always be more powerful than its effect. Now the gift of grace surpasses every capability of created nature, since it is nothing short of partaking of the Divine Nature. And thus it is impossible that any creature should cause grace. For it is as necessary that God alone should deify, bestowing a partaking of the Divine Nature by a participated likeness, as it is impossible that anything save fire should enkindle" (Summa, Ia2ae q. 112a. 1).

    In the view of confessional Reformed theologians, this conflates the Creator-creature distinction. Rather than conceiving man's relationship to God ontologically, we would say the relationship is analogical only.

  6. ah, the scandal of the incarnation. God has life in himself, and Jesus said he could lay down his life and take it up again. To share in the divine life is to receive it as a gift (a gift which God truly has the power to give to man) - this divine life is never something that I have in myself - like the manna in the desert, it all turns to worms if I forget God. Having encountered Jesus Christ, my heart will never again be satisfied with mere analogies or interpretations.

  7. Interesting interpretation. :-)

    Even in the incarnation, the divinity and the humanity remain distinct. There is a Creator-creature distinction. As the Definition of Chalcedon says, "the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved."