Objective subjective

Stuart Seaton takes the Bishop of Lincoln to task for an error of logic by which he appears to have misunderstood what may be subjective or objective

 

Someone once wisely said that most people are right in what they affirm to be true, and wrong in what they consequently conclude to be false. It is hard to deny that this describes Dr John Saxbee, Bishop of Lincoln. In an article in last month’s ND he pointed out that ‘for the argument to be essentially a Christian theological argument, whatever the subject may be, the object of the argument is God as initiator of all being, the ground of all meaning and revealer of all truth.’

From this unexceptionable statement of God as the object of Christian truth, Saxbee draws a quite false conclusion. He thinks an argument about episcopacy must be subjective because it does not have God as its object (it is about bishops, not God). It follows, he thinks, that questions of the episcopacy are ‘subjective,’ so women bishops must at least be possible and indeed may ‘become a matter of urgency, or even necessity.’

Sleight of hand

It is hard not to think there is some sort of logical sleight of hand going on here, or at least a serious muddle. Let’s ask if Lincoln really thinks theological arguments can only be objectively true if they have God as their object. Supposing one of the Confessing Christians in Nazi Germany argued at his show trial that the holocaust was wrong because killing innocent people is objectively wrong.

How would Dr Saxbee answer if the Nazis called him to be a witness in the case? I am sure he would agree with the Confessing Christian that the holocaust was wrong, but he would seem to have to oppose the Confessing Christian’s argument that the holocaust was objectively wrong because God was not the object of the argument. Therefore, by his logic he would need to say that it is only subjective that killing innocent people is wrong: a statement like ‘killing innocent people is wrong’ might be true for the Confessing Christian but not true for the Nazi. I do not see how the logic of Dr Saxbee’s position can avoid this abhorrent conclusion.

How could Dr Saxbee defend himself? He could, if he sticks to his Christian credentials, create an argument to the effect that although only God can be the object of a theological argument, yet God can make his objective will known in revelation. So the Confessing Christian’s belief that killing innocent people is wrong can be said to be objective because the objective God has revealed it to be wrong: ‘Thou shalt do no murder.’ It is objective even though it is not about God, because it is about what God has said of his own objective will.

But if this is the case, then it is also possible that God has revealed his objective will on a question such as women’s ordination, in which case, the rightness (or otherwise) of ordaining women could also be a question of objective truth. In fact, Dr Saxbee shows he believes women’s ordination is a matter of objective truth. He says that women bishops might become ‘a matter of urgency, or even necessity.’ That word ‘necessity’ gives the game away, for something which is only subjective cannot be necessary; something can only be necessary if it is objectively true.

Judging gods

Lincoln goes on to say ‘ultimately’ arguments for or against women bishops ‘are to be judged on the basis of what kind of God it is who emerges from the several arguments on offer.’ I have to say that I find this statement a meaningless misunderstanding of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Lincoln seems to be saying that a variety of ‘gods’ emerge from the arguments about women bishops. Our job (Lincoln suggests) is to judge which of these ‘gods’ is the real God.

But how on earth are we to do this? By what standard can we possibly judge the living God? To suggest that we can judge him is to suggest that there is an objective standard above God. But if God really is the only objective theological truth (as Saxbee claims to believe), then there is no standard outside of God by which we can judge the rightness or otherwise of his actions or his will.

The living God is himself the objective standard by which everything else is judged. Since we have no standard by which to judge God, we simply cannot judge the rightness of ordaining women on the basis of ‘what kind of God it is who emerges from the several arguments on offer.’ To suggest that we can is to have slipped into precisely the kind of ‘idolatry’ that Saxbee is warning against.

None of this of course resolves the question of what (if anything) God has revealed as his objective will for the ministry. But what it does show is that God’s will may be strange and puzzling to us: he, not us, is the objective standard by which things are found to be right and true. And this means that it is possible that the objective truth is that the priesthood and the episcopate are reserved to males alone.

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