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Ad fontes!- because ipse dixit is still a fallacy


Nor is silliness the exclusive preserve of the Left.

Perusing "progressive" blogs (those on the Left which are ashamed to call themselves "liberal"), I gather that the term of choice is "wingnut." This is said to be short for "right-wing nut." Though why it wouldn't work just as well as "left-wing nut," I don't pretend to understand.

Anyway, whatever the term is, it would be harsh to use it of Bruce Bartlett, the author of this- well- strange piece, which suggests that George W. Bush isn't truly a conservative because he isn't a Roman Catholic.

Yes, that's what I said.

Bartlett cites the bizarre premise of Dartmoth English professor Jeffrey Hart, a former National Review editor who argues that since Mr. Bush as an "Evangelical" (a breed of Protestant cat for which- as regular readers of this blog will doubtless be well aware- I have little use), the President is therefore isolated from a traditional conservative concern for "prudence, informed by the study of history and human nature," which characterizes true conservativsm.

Mr. Bush, Hart (and, by implication, Bartlett) argues, believes that one person's interpretation of "the Tradition" is as good as another. He is thus disconnected, Bartlett argues, from the rootedness in history and tradition which is the essence of conservatism.

Well, as a confessional Lutheran- a breed of non-Roman cat which also values history and tradition- I can assure these gentlemen of a couple of things. The first is that I reject the notion that all interpretations of "the Tradition" are created equal every bit as much as they do. The "right of private judgment" which is such a bugbear in Roman Catholic apologetics is asserted (at least in the form usually ascribed to Protestantism without distinction by Roman Catholics) only by those standing outside the tradition of the magisterial Reformation. Any interpretation of "the Tradition" which does not take serious account of what the great theologians and saints and councils have had to say in interpreting the Faith is an irresponsible and silly one. The question raised by the Reformation was rather whether the interpretations of theologians and saints and popes and councils have the authority to overrule and modify what has gone before. It is Rome, not the Reformation, which is finally unconservative.

The second is that the logical fallacy ipse dixit ("he says so;" the appeal to authority) is, indeed, precisely a logical fallacy.

The apostolic tradition- available to us in its earliest and best-attested form in the apostolic Scripture, whose authority as precisely that is undisputed in Christendom- disqualifies any authority which patently contradicts it. And that conservative, tradition-loving Roman Catholic magisterium does precisely that with regard to justification, the details of the Real Presence, and myriad other subjects.

Sola scriptura- properly understood- is conservative in a sense that Roman Catholicism- based as it is on the appeal to an authority which frequently contradicts the very tradition it claims to interpret authoritatively- can never be. It is simply a restatement of the humanist slogan, "ad fontes!" ("To the sources!"). Now, Harper's (and, by implication, Bartlett's) criticisms of Bush's conservatism might, or might not, stand on other grounds; judging those grounds would require acquaintence with them. And yes, the distorted version of the sola Scriptura on which Mr. Bush's tradition relies has its defects, not the least of which being its failure to appreciate the fact that the unique authority of the apostolic Scriptures does not mean that they may be prudently read apart from two thousand years of the reading, analysis and understanding of one's fellow believers.

But there is nothing less conservative than to read a source of authority rigidly by the lights of a lesser authority which clearly contradicts it on its own terms. Harper blows his own argument out of the water when he tries to make Roman Catholicism the epitome of conservatism. The issue where the sola Scriptura is concerned- that is, where it is indeed the authority of Scripture which is at stake, as opposed to that of its individual interpreter- is not one's respect for tradition or one's prudence in reading it, in combination with the overly optimistic understanding of human nature of which Roman Catholicism- as well as "Evangelicalism," by the way- is guilty.

It is whether the Apostles, or the Church, are finally better authorities as to the meaning and intention of the Apostles. It is about whether or not the fallacy ipse dixit is, indeed, a fallacy.

More than that, any defense of the Roman Catholic magisterium on this charge must, of necessity, be made on the basis on which, by its very nature, any appeal to authority in a tradition which bases itself on the teachings of the Apostles must, of necessity, be made- to the teachings of the Apostles.

To the sola Scriptura.

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