In the discussion following Jim Kalb’s Orthosphere post “Women, Catholicism, and Impending Architectural Catastrophe”, commenter Aegis asks
At what point does one become entitled to an opinion on such matters?
And if some of us can never get to the point of truly understanding certain matters, then how can we assent to them as true let alone defend or bear witness to them as true?
He was responding to Bruce Charleton’s assertion—in the same comment section—that
…it is a major error to engage in rational argument trying to convince people who have no right to an opinion…Some issues are way beyond us – we have no right to change things about which we know little, have thought little, and lack the necessary spiritual depth to understand.
What to say in response to Aegis? At what point does one become entitled to an opinion?
The basic answer is that there is no glib answer. Truth exists, but some reject it openly, and some take comfort—of a sort—in doubt. Doubt can be beneficial if it ultimately leads you to reject an error, but doubt per se is not a virtue. Eventually, after you have investigated things, you need to be able to acknowledge what is before your eyes.
But man is not omniscient. He could be mistaken. And man also has an innate sinful tendency to reject the most important truths. For these reasons, the question of authority is crucial for the question of epistemology: How can you know truth? A large part of the answer is that you must submit to the correct authorities, chief among which is God (the ultimate Authority) and the Bible, God’s Words to man.
When it comes to the lesser questions, for example, the questions that science investigates, man’s ability to perceive and reason is usually enough. But when it comes to the greater questions such as God, goodness, beauty, truth or, in the linked discussion, maleness and femaleness, man’s own resources are inadequate. They supply some of the evidence, but they are inadequate. In order to become wise, a man must trust the higher authorities.
The higher authorities do not “rule” intellectually by suppressing alternate beliefs. Instead, by virtue of their possessing genuine authority, they express the correct answer, and thereby settle the issue. Not in the sense that doubt and argument cease, but in the sense that the correct answer has now been identified, and so those who are able to trust the proper authorities know the correct answer. Disagreement does not mean that there is no truth, nor that there is no authority capable of identifying truth for the benefit of mankind.
Nor does it mean that there is no rational argument for a truth. There is always evidence, usually in abundance, for any truth. But as we all know, there is always evidence and apparently-rational arguments in support of the opposite falsehood that the truth corrects. Therefore it is easy for man to go astray, and so man needs intellectual authorities.
The ability to trust what you have good reason to believe, but for which there also exists contrary evidence, is called “faith.” Christians know that faith in God is a gift from God, not something that a man generates by himself. They also know that faith includes (but is not limited to) a trust in God, and therefore also a trust in those lesser authorities who correctly articulate God’s truth. Disagreement over first principles exists, ultimately, because not every man has been given the gift of faith.
And how can we know who these higher authorities are? As I said, there is no glib answer. The intellectual discipline of Christian apologetics offers reasons why the Bible is trustworthy, but not all Christian teachers and not all of Christian tradition, are trustworthy. Protestants like me would say that the Bible is the highest earthly authority, and so any person or tradition that contradicts it is wrong. Catholics would say that the Pope has the highest earthly authority, supplemented, as it were, by his Catholic (capital-T) Tradition. And Orthodox Christian would, I presume, say something like that their Tradition provides assurance of orthodoxy, that is, right thinking.
In connection to this, I must refer here to another point made by Dr. Charleton in many posts at his blog and many comments here at the Orthosphere, that Christians ought not subject Christian tradition to rationalistic scrutiny, where “rationalistic” means the attitude that human reason is capable of correcting either Scripture or tradition.
I agree that Scripture cannot be corrected by man, although minor errors of transmission and translation have occasionally occurred, and do need to be corrected. [None of these errors changes Christian doctrine.] But although tradition is to be honored, and presumed correct until there is a great mass of evidence against it, I cannot agree that Christian tradition is never to be corrected. Let me explain.
Although many Protestants foolishly believe that the Christian does not need pastors, teachers, theologians, or creeds, authentic Protestantism has always taught that these authorities are necessary. Authentic Protestantism (sometimes called “confessional” or “creedal Protestantism”) acknowledges that the Christian needs Christian tradition to guide him. In this respect, Protestantism is similar to Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy in that it acknowledges the need for tradition and other forms of authority.
What makes the Protestant view of tradition different (and, in my view, correct) is that it does not hold tradition to be the highest (earthly) authority. Tradition only possesses authority if it faithfully expresses biblical teaching. Whereas Rome regards itself as something like the creator of Scripture, and Orthodoxy regards its Tradition as the true teachings of Christ and the Apostles, only Protestantism acknowledges that all earthly authorities other than the Bible are capable of being mistaken, and therefore must be in submission to Scripture.
The Lord Jesus Christ Himself asserted that human tradition was capable of being mistaken, and therefore in need of correction by Scripture. In Mark 7:9-13, Jesus answered the challenge of the Pharisees, who said that He taught his disciples to disobey the “traditions of the elders,” by saying
And he said unto them, Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition.
For Moses said, Honour thy father and thy mother; and, Whoso curseth father or mother, let him die the death:
But ye say, If a man shall say to his father or mother, It is Corban, that is to say, a gift, by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me; he shall be free
And ye suffer him no more to do ought for his father or his mother;
Making the word of God of none effect through your tradition, which ye have delivered: and many such like things do ye.
Tradition can be mistaken. But only Scripture—God’s words to us—can correct it. The great and satanic error of the liberal rationalists is to think that human reason (and often, in practice human emotion or whim) is sufficient to correct tradition and Scripture.