Sunday, July 22, 2007

Memory and Accuracy

I recently came across an interesting comment in Charles Hodge's Systematic Theology:

Dr. John Henry Newman says, that if Protestants insist on making the Church of Rome Antichrist, they thereby make over all Roman Catholics, past and present, "to utter and hopeless perdition." This does not follow. The Church of Rome is to be viewed under different aspects; as the papacy, an external organized hierarchy, with the pope, with all his arrogant claims, at its head; and also as a body of men professing certain religious doctrines. Much may be said of it in the one aspect, which is not true of it in the other. Much may be said of Russia as an empire that cannot be said of all Russians. At one time the first Napoleon was regarded by many as Antichrist; that did not involve the belief that all Frenchmen who acknowledged him as emperor, or all soldiers who followed him as their leader, were the sons of perdition. That many Roman Catholics, past and present, are true Christians, is a palpable fact. It is a fact which no man can deny without committing a great sin. It is a sin against Christ not to acknowledge as true Christians those who bear his image, and whom He recognizes as his brethren. It is a sin also against ourselves. We are not born of God unless we love the children of God. If we hate and denounce those whom Christ loves as members of his own body, what are we? It is best to be found on the side of Christ, let what will happen. It is perfectly consistent, then, for a man to denounce the papacy as the man of sin, and yet rejoice in believing, and in openly acknowledging, that there are, and ever have been, many Romanists who are the true children of God.

This is an interesting case of misreading. For Newman, of course, does not claim that the Protestants in question as a matter of fact hold that all Catholics are doomed to perdition (he explicitly denies that they do). His argument, indeed, assumes that they would not want to say this at all, since he claims that Protestants, if they claim that the Church of Rome is Antichrist, are committed by Scripture to saying that all Catholics are doomed to perdition. This is notable when we look at the original context of Newman's comment. He has pointed out that when Paul discusses Antichrist in II Thessalonians 2, he says of the followers of Antichrist, "They received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved; and for this cause God shall send them strong delusion that they should believe a lie, that they all might be damned who believed not in the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness." He notes in particular the 'all'. And he also points out Revelation 14:9. It's Newman's argument that passages like these commit someone, on the basis of sola scriptura, to saying that, if someone or something is Antichrist, all who follow him or it are damned. Then he goes on to say:

We entreat indulgence of serious minds for quoting such very awful words in a composition of this kind; but it is most necessary to bring before all thinking men the real state of the case, and respectfully and anxiously to warn them what they are doing, when they so confidently and solemnly pronounce Christian Rome to be Babylon. Do they know what they say? do they really resign themselves in faith, as they profess to do, to the sovereign word of God as they interpret it? Do they in faith make over the millions upon millions now and in former times who have been in subjection to the Roman See to utter and hopeless perdition? Do they in very truth look upon them as the direct and open enemies of God, and children of Satan? Then surely they ought to show this much more in acts, in the fruits of such faith, than even the most zealous of them have adopted; then is mere exclusion of Romanists from political power a very poor and miserable way of separating themselves from the kingdom of Satan. If even heresy stops the channels of sacramental grace, if there are degrees of moral corruption which bid fair to destroy the being of a Church and annul even the most canonical Succession, if we are to shun and abhor those in whom the prince of this world works, what ought to be our acts and our feelings towards the embodied idea of rebellion and pride, towards him who is pure evil, who is to be revealed as the son of perdition, and who is destined from the beginning for divine wasting and destruction?

This, of course, is the passage Hodge has in mind.

One of the things that makes this an interesting misreading is that Hodge, whatever may be said of him, typically makes a reasonable effort to lay out his opponents' positions fairly. What I suggest we should see here is an instance in which memory works against fair reading. Of all of Newman's discussion, the passage quoted above is probably the most memorable: it is direct, it is vividly expressed, and it is forcefully to the point. But, of course, it does not capture the full argument. There is also the elaborate exegesis, the background to the rhetorical question, "do they really resign themselves in faith, as they profess to do, to the sovereign word of God as they interpret it?" and so forth. But this is far less memorable, and it is only the memorable part that gets carried forward to be criticized by Hodge. This sort of problem, of course, is quite common; memorable claims have a tendency to usurp the positions of the arguments that they merely sum up, leading to distortion in interpretation. This is particularly notable when the author's style tends to the rhetorically elaborate -- this is true certainly of Newman, and is one reason why Augustine, for instance, being so full of memorable phrases and claims, is so often and so easily misinterpreted. The memorable sometimes pushes out of view its own context; what is left is an inaccurate memory, inaccurate because it only contains the more memorable features, leaving out the rest even when it is important.

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