02 June 2014

Strange Confidence: On the Infallibility of Tradition

Previously we looked at the occasion of Dryden's writing of Religio Laici, and then we looked briefly at his dealings with the Deists. Those "vain, wretched creatures" argued for a rather robust revelation extrapolated from nature alone; but as it turns out (according to Dryden), their arguments themselves were made possible only through the special revelation put forth in God's holy Word. In short, "Reveal'd Religion first inform'd thy Sight, / And Reason saw not, till Faith sprung the Light" (ll. 68–69).

You may also remember that Dryden's approach to matters of faith and reason and tradition was quintessentially Anglican, indeed, Hookerian, and now we'll see how that position played itself out poetically "as a via media . . . maintaining a proper equilibrium between a purely rational theology (Deism) on the one hand and fideism (Catholicism) and voluntarism (Puritanism) on the other."1 Specifically, in this post, Simon's claims for an infallible magisterium in response to a fallible received holy text will come under Dryden's scrutiny.

At the outset, it's worth to note the majority Anglican approach to both tradition and the church's authority2: Both are contingent, and are not absolutely necessary for salvation (but nota bene: the church isn't contingent). The orthodox Anglican view in Dryden's time had been to affirm the truth and sufficiency of a few articles of faith, such as the Apostles' Creed (as understood by the early church Fathers), with all other matters adiaphora ("things indifferent"), and hence liable to differences of opinion. Note, however, that this can be overstated quickly.

The Anglican position by the late seventeenth century and into the "Age of Lights" grew increasingly latitudinarian, and thus shared greater similarity with other Protestant groups in its approach to this matter than it had previously. Note also that just because a particular group of Protestants deem much of the Christian tradition to be a matter of traditions (plural) and thus filled with things indifferent, doesn't mean that its opinions on, say, ecclesiastical polity (or how Christ is present in the Eucharist, or eschatology, etc.) are held lightly or loosely. In other words, this isn't subjectivist theological reductionism for the sake of sidestepping the Catholic solution to the pluralism problem; it's objective salve for the sake of the soul oppressed by the demagogic eclipse of the simple gospel: "If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved" (Rom 10:9).

At any rate, Dryden, like his orthodox Anglican forebears, argued that the Scriptures were sufficient unto salvation and that the few articles necessary thereunto (and contained therein) are so simple and self-evident that they are available to all grace-enabled people. Thus he writes that Scripture "speaks it Self, and what it does contain, / In all things needfull to be known, is plain" (ll. 368–69). To show humankind his way, God furnished a "Sacred Volume" in which is contained all that is sufficient and clear to that end (see ll. 121–67). Reason attests to this canon (even if it's limited in its attestation of saving faith), just as it did to the early church Fathers.

Here we come to the crux of Dryden's response to Simon's higher critical history: he asserts the fallibility of tradition, and consequently the necessity of weighing the evidence by the light of reason (not fideistic reliance on tradition), which is exactly what the formulators of that tradition did, having no other option open to them (whether at Jerusalem, Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus, or Chalcedon). While agreeing with Simon that many errors have crept in through the copyists' and translators' fault ("And where Infallibility has fail'd," l. 251), Dryden disagrees with him on how to resolve that tension. He articulates the Catholic argument thus:
Oh but says one, Tradition set aside,
Where can we hope for an unerring Guid?
For since th' original Scripture has been lost,
All Copies disagreeing, maimyd the most,
Or Christian Faith can have no certain ground,
Or Truth in Church Tradition must be found. (ll. 276–81)
To this argument for the primacy of an enduring church tradition to fix the problem (and its necessary correlation—an infallible church), Dryden replies sarcastically:
Such an Omniscient Church we wish indeed;
'Twere worth Both Testaments, and cast in the Creed:
But if this Mother be a Guid so sure,
As can all doubts resolve, all truth secure,
Then her Infallibility, as well
Where Copies are corrupt, or lame, can tell;
Restore lost Canon with as little pains,
As truly explicate what still remains:
Which yet no Council dare pretend to doe;
Unless like Esdras, they cou'd write it new:
Strange Confidence, still to interpret true,
Yet not be sure that all they have explain'd,
Is in the blest Original contain'd. (ll. 282–94)
With no small amount of irony, Dryden remarks that were it true that church tradition be infallible, we would wish indeed for "Such an Omniscient Church." Scripture, however, is another matter. Its adequacy unto salvation rules out the need for such an infallible guide:
More Safe, and much more modest 'tis, to say
God wou'd not leave Mankind without a way:
And that the Scriptures, though not every where
Free from Corruption, or intire, or clear,
Are uncorrupt, sufficient, clear, intire,
In all things which our needfull Faith require.
If others in the same Glass better see
'Tis for Themselves they look, but not for me:
For MY Salvation must its Doom receive
Not from what OTHERS, but what I believe. (ll. 295–304)
Here we have it—the quintessential modern Anglican answer to Simon's higher criticism and its attendant Catholic apology. Such a position finds itself immune to the more destructive (unintended, in the early years) consequences of higher criticism to the faith, given that whatever is necessary for salvation is in Scripture "uncorrupt, sufficient, clear, intire," even if it is "not every where / Free from Corruption, or intire, or clear."3 Added to this is Dryden's commitment to the idea that such fundamentals of the faith must eventually be a matter of fiducia on the part of individuals—one cannot simply rely on what others believe to save her (which he thinks is implied by the Catholic Church's assertion of an infallible magisterium with respect to matters essential to salvation).

Lest we miss it, Dryden's arguing specifically against Simon's apologetic here (re-read ll. 282–94): if indeed the Catholic Church has recourse to an infallible magisterium, why doesn't it "Restore [the] lost Canon" (something that "yet no Council dare pretend to doe," by the way)? What "Strange Confidence" indeed, to pontificate infallibly on scriptural matters that the pontiff itself is unsure are even contained in the original autographs. It's much more modest to conclude reasonably that "God wou'd not leave Mankind without a way" and that that way would reflect the reality of the world as it is, rather than so much wishful thinking.

I must quickly point out that Dryden, however, cannot be put to service in the ranks of modern Western Christianity, with all its repudiation of the catholic tradition in favor of solo scriptura. After providing his answer to Simon's apologetic (which apparently didn't hold for terribly long—remember he converted to Catholicism by 1687), he turns his attention to the Puritans and their heirs, the Non-Conformists (at the time of the Restoration, these constituted everyone not under the rubric of the Church of the England). We'll dig into all this more deeply when we look at the next portion of the poem.

The Anglicans are, by definition, governed by tradition, which tradition they deem closest to the apostolical tradition, and which is best ensconced in Scripture, the Apostles' Creed, and the seven ecumenical councils. This is, of course, basic to the Anglican position that its churches are more robustly catholic than many of Rome's churches.

This is not to suggest that therefore the Anglican church becomes an end in itself, for then we run the risk of making sacred an open wound. It is to suggest, with Dryden, a "much more modest way": God's breath-out word, much like his Son the Word, is a "Common Largess to Mankind," not more for Roman Catholics "than every Man design'd." The "welcome" good news, the simple heralding that God's Messiah is now king of kings and lord of lords, having begun to make all things new through his victory over Sin and Death, "is in the Letter found." In a fragmented state of ecclesial affairs, there is no one "Carrier," like, for example, the Roman Catholic Church, that's "Commission'd to expound" (ll. 364–67). To suggest otherwise would be to assume, . . .
                                 . . . with wondrous Art,
Themselves to be the whole, who are but part
Of that vast Frame, the Church: . . . . (ll. 358–60)
So much for Dryden's response to the "father of higher criticism"—Richard Simon—and the Roman Catholic apology he employed alongside his hermeneutical work. I don't find Dryden's response groundbreaking or anything, but it is pretty impressive in that it's cast entirely in the "plain and natural" yet "majestic" heroic couplet (see last paragraph of Religio's preface for Dryden's explanation for using this style).

In the next and final post, I'll wrap it up with Dryden's commendation to go with the traditional flow in matters inessential to salvation.

1 Thomas H. Fujimura, "Dryden's Religio Laici: An Anglican Poem," PMLA, 76.3 (June 1961): 205-217, at 207. Fujimura's essay is especially important when discussing the "theography" of Dryden, who converted to Catholicism by 1687. What part does Religio Laici (1682) play in Dryden's journey of faith? Fujimura's answer to the "widely accepted view that it is a Catholic poem in spirit" is that this is "completely unsound, and that [Religio Laici] is, in most respects, a conventional work of Anglican apologetics" (205).

2 We've already discussed the typical Anglican understanding of how faith relates to reason, i.e., that the two are not opposed but rather complementary. Neither anti-rationalistic nor rationalistic (though the latter certainly was a temptation, given that many of the Deists came out of the Church of England), Anglicans typically recognized the limitations of reason in the realm of faith, but they also understood that it played its part in the apprehension of God's Word and the formulation of conclusions "by force of reason" (to use Hooker's words).

Beyond our scope here is the possibility that by Dryden's time, and quite probably in reaction to the misuse of reason in the direction of Deism and Socinianism, churchmen in general began to follow the Cartesian divorce of the spiritual and natural realms. With the rise of early modern empirical investigation, "reason was delegated more and more to the domain of natural knowledge, and the domain of religion was handed over to faith" (Fujimura, 206).

3 This principle, incidentally, was adopted by all the early higher critics who remained Protestant churchmen: They had no intent of acting destructively against the faith. But they thought that such criticism is the appropriate tool for investigating the historical ground and theoretical formulation of theology. While personal faith could not be harmed in this manner, theology, which is a matter of public and objective expression, requires the full arsenal of critical scholarship.


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