Digby Anderson looks at why Christians engage in so many never-ending arguments

I don’t know what the Christians in General Synod think they have been doing for the past twenty odd years or more on church order and authority but I know what they have been doing; arguing. Christians imagine they pray, worship, educate, and advance equality. So they do. But they also argue – a lot. They have been arguing – a lot – for 2,000 years. St Paul was addicted to it. The early Fathers hurled themselves into it, especially about martyrdom. The Fathers of the Councils argued. Augustine and Aquinas constructed arguments. So did East and West, Protestants and Catholics. Within the CofE, high, low and broad churchmen are still at it.

The din it makes disturbs Christians trying to care for the poor or pray. Other Christians positively enjoy it. But few study it or ask what sort of arguing it is. The most obvious characteristic, suggested by the long history of the arguments, is that many of them are inconclusive, or at least have not been concluded. They rise, fall and reappear, with modish new variations. There are no new heresies.

Santa Clara

I said the arguments are constructed. The arguers select data, facts, traditions, beliefs held by older, revered arguers, then put them in their preferred order creatively to reach the conclusions the arguments ‘lead to.’ I revisited the humdinger of all church arguments, The Franciscan Santa Clara’s Paraphrastica Expositio Articulorum Confessionis Anglicana (1642), the basis of Newman’s Tract XC. He carefully and impressively shows how all 39 Articles can be harmonized with Trent. Somewhere, at some time there is a reference, an understanding of the matter of the article which could be reconciled with Trent. He is aided in this by the Articles being written so as to be vague and ambiguous. The method is somewhat akin to biblical proof texting where, if you look long and far enough, there will be a biblical text to fit your argumentative purpose. Nothing necessarily wrong with that; indeed, I am sympathetic to Santa Clara. But what we have here in epistemological terms is arguments with next to no limits to the data they can call on.

Natural language

When Santa Clara has his data, he works it up into his argument. This is helped by the fact that he is writing in a natural language (Latin translated into English). Natural languages, even Latin, are full of metaphors and images, rhetorical tricks or ordering and arrangement that make them powerful persuasive tools. Natural languages, unlike closed, artificial languages such as algebra, even when used for theological or philosophical purposes, are the same languages we use every day, the language of novelists, politicians, bankers and prostitutes. The features that enable such people to use natural language persuasively also are available to Santa Clara, or Aquinas, Augustine, Newman, Vatican II or General Synod. But note; the fact that these arguments are written in a creative, natural language does not mean they cannot reveal truth. Novelists deal in truth just as much as scientists, but it is approached in a different way and under a different set of rules. We assume judges and juries can reach the truth using avowedly rhetorical, even dramaturgical methods; why not theologians? But these characteristics, no limit to the data, and natural language, explain why conclusive proof is so elusive, why the arguments go on.

Persuasive language is inevitable but it does not have to be low. I also looked at one particular Anglican-Roman argument which, like Santa Clara, tries to find harmony. Here are some notes on its rhetoric expressed, by me, as rules. Where disagreement and agreement coexist, call the former ‘particular’ and the latter ‘basic’, to emphasize agreement. For more persuasion call the basic ‘solid.’ Use more spatial analogy, thus talk of ‘moving from basic principles to particular claims’. Where there is disagreement, emphasize dissension among those who disagree. Assign disagreement to the past and use vague quantifications, ‘many Roman Catholics do not now every respect’. Tone down disagreement; do not say ‘many Anglicans do not accept Infallibility’ but that it is à source of anxiety.’ Borrow profusely from the language of international diplomacy: ‘In spite of the difficulties...we believe...a significant convergence...far reaching consequences.’ And my favourite, ‘They have come to see old problems in new horizons.’

Not scientific

But even this is not beyond discipline. It can be disciplined using our knowledge of how rhetoric works. No educated reader could fail to see through these clumsy ploys. A final example; Vatican II-ists argue for various ideas as ‘models’ of the church, thus People of God, the Church as Herald or The Body of Christ. These are not reconcilable with each other. They denote different populations. But what is important is the use of the scientific term ‘model’. None of these are models in the scientific-geometric or isomorphic sense. Call them figures, allegories, similes, analogies, metaphors, dogmatic formulae, even teleological images, anything but models. ‘Models’ itself might suggest rhetorically that these arguments are like scientific ones. They are not.

Arguments about the church are not like science ones nor should they be low rhetoric. They are natural language arguments subject to the discipline of other natural language arguments. If that makes them inconclusive in any final sense, we shall just have to live with that. Santa Clara cheekily admits this when he shows his two sources are not harmonized but harmonizable. ND


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