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(Text as at 10/11/2007 17:47:02)

A discussion thread I want to start is on authority. You’ll be able to look up some old letters1 between myself and the Prior of Parkminster on whether or not authority is needed in theological matters. My side of the argument is mostly lost, but it doesn’t look as though I was winning. I expect that particular argument is winnable, but it depends on there being, as a matter of fact, no theological experts. Now, in a sense, no argument can be settled purely on the basis of authority. But, in practice, there exist specialisms that are too difficult for the uninitiated to have a view on; or, at least not a justifiably sound one when it differs from those of the experts. The reformation claim is that the Bible is an open book, and anyone with an open mind can interpret it as God intends. That’s not to belittle the usefulness of exegetes, or the benefit of all sorts of background information, whether linguistic or historical, that is the province of genuine expertise. The claim is that this expertise isn’t essential – the candid Bible-reader can do without it. The Catholic claim is that they can’t, and that they can and have gone wrong. My counter to this is that, while this is OK in principle – it would be nice to have these experts, and to see theological understanding getting closer and closer to the truth as time goes by - this doesn’t seem to have been the case, and the so-called experts have often been obviously wrong. Worse than this, they have often not admitted their error but have persisted in it, and merely politically suppressed those that disagreed with them.

Are there any non-Theological authorities that we should submit to? There is an obvious conflict between the Biblical claims and the “modern scientific world-view” (and in particular, the entire methodology of science, which assumes that the world we investigate is a closed materialist system, with no life forces, and with at most a non-interfering God). And this model seems to work. Scientific knowledge isn’t an immutable body of truth, and there have been a lot of wrong turnings. But the argument is that scientific claims are subject to the empirical evidence, and that refusing to face up to this (as, for example, Lysenko did) eventually leads to disaster. So, if proved wrong, most people change their minds. Those who refuse to be convinced for no good reason eventually run out of disciples and die out. Additionally, the claim is that science makes progress – while the current consensus may not be the ultimate truth (and at the leading edge of research there is usually no consensus, though one may develop over time), it is nearer the truth than the consensus 10, 50 or 100 years ago.

Now, a lot of science is highly technical, mathematical or knowledge-intensive. The “book of the world” is larger and more difficult to understand than the Bible. But some people seem to assume that they are allowed to have opinions on scientific issues that are contrary to the current consensus, without the requisite training. This is essentially the assertion that, not only are there no theological experts, there are no scientific experts either. Now this denial comes in various flavours. Some will adopt the sensible approach that “leading edge” stuff is more open to doubt than core science. So, while we may doubt there are any experts on human evolution (not primarily because evolution is plain false as a theory, but because the palaeontological evidence is so sketchy), we may not doubt that the age of the earth is greater than 6,000 years. The reason we may accept the latter is that there is so much evidence, and so many geologists rely on the “old earth” model, which also fits in with cosmological models, that we’re willing to accept the consensus (and interpret our Bibles in accord with it). Some refuse to do this, but without good reason in my view.

Sylvia’s Response2

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Authority. S1 Fr. Bernard Correspondence      

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Summary of Note Links to this Page

Mike & Sylvia (29/12/2010) Status: Philosophy of Religion (Summary of Progress to Date)      

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