The DD Dog That Just Don’t Hunt, or Why the DD Ecumenical Overture Doesn’t Work

In a previous post, I referenced the first installment of Dr. Michael Liccione’s two-part post on the development of doctrine and how, in his view, Roman Catholics and Orthodox can find common ground on this matter without, he thinks, giving up their distinctives.

Well, several days ago, Dr. L followed up with his second post on doctrinal development and RC-Orthodox ecumenism. (For what it’s worth, Jonathon Prejean has a post criticizing an argument by Mr. Jargon that touches on the issues Dr. L addresses. And Brandon Watson also touches on the essence/energies distinction, asserting its ultimate notionality.)

Dr. L begins his post thus:

In a previous post I briefly argued that there is hardly any substantive difference between the Catholic understanding of authentic development of doctrine, as expressed by Vatican II, and a fairly typical account of DD given by a mainstream Orthodox author.

Dr. L and his fellow Roman Catholics lament the intransigence of the Orthodox who just don’t seem to want to “play nice.” When reading the comboxes of these and similar posts in the blogosphere, it’s clear that the Roman Catholic commenters scratch their heads. In their view, they’re offering the Orthodox the opportunity to keep their particular convictions but also to reunite with one of the ancient patriarchates and to end the millennium-long schism.

But there are two fundamental misunderstandings at work here, one related to ecclesiology and one related to theology.

With regard to ecclesiology, the Roman Catholics, such as Dr. Liccione and others, view the Orthodox as separated brethren. Indeed, if Orthodox bishops would permit their faithful to commune in Roman Catholic Eucharists, the Roman Catholic would oblige them. For the Roman Catholics, the matter is more formal than it is material. But the Orthodox do not hold this same ecclesiological view: they understand Rome to be in material separation from the Church, with certain doctrinal heresies as well as the, to Orthodox, overreach of papal jurisdictional primacy. So there is more at work here, for Orthodox, than coming to a meeting of the minds. Roman Catholics don’t “get it” of course, since a) they do not believe they are in heresy on certain doctrinal matters, and b) they read the patristic witness about the patriarch of Rome in lights favorable to their views. (On that last point, so do Orthodox. The issue is not that of reading in a favorable light, but which light is the truth.)

But I don’t want to get in to the ecclesiology, since Mr. Jargon at NeoChalcedonian, among others, is doing a nice job of that.

The other, to me more pertinent issue, is that of theology. Dr. Liccione asserts his both/and scenario from a particular vantage point: that of natural theology. This may not be quite so clear from the post itself, but in the related links and the comboxes it’s clear that two things are going on: a) if Orthodox would only understand the doctrinal issues from the standpoint of natural theology, as the Roman Catholics do, all would be well, and b) Orthodox theology itself doesn’t stand up, so the Roman Catholic commenters claim, to natural theological critiques, and therefore is itself problematic (and thus a good reason to jettison it).

In other words, what Dr. L is implicitly asking, even if this is not his intention, is for Orthodox to cease doing theology in the way Orthodox do theology and to start doing theology the way Roman Catholics do theology. Or, to say it another way, what we have is a tautology: since Rome is right, Rome must therefore be right. Now commenters like Dr. L, Jonathon Prejean and others will object to this accusation of such a vicious circle. After all, they claim, what we have made are substantive arguments. And I agree, they have.

What they have not done, however, is justify their starting presuppositions. And that’s where the trouble begins. Orthodox begin with different theological first principles than do the Roman Catholic commenters here referenced. And to object that Orthodox do not make cogent arguments is primarily to say that Orthodox do not make arguments that start from the same point.

Now, strictly speaking, one does not, nor can, rationally justify one’s first principles. There is a certain strength to the ancient skeptical “Agrippan modes.” To avoid the infinite regress of justification, one has to admit a certain sort of circularity. That is to say, one has to start somewhere. So one posits one’s first principles. From there, as Aristotle, among other thinkers, notes, one then “justifies” such first principles, such asserted presuppositions, by way of coherence. Are the articulations and derivative arguments from such presuppositions sound? And, do they map on to reality as best we know it?

Jonathon, among others, would argue that Orthodox metaphysics does not “map on” to reality. This, of course, begs several questions, not the least of which is the circularity of an argument that utilizes “reality” as both the starting point and measurement of views that do not operate within that paradigm. Why does natural theology have the capacity to judge “Orthodox metaphysics” in a way that he, and others, reject “Orthodox metaphysics” can judge natural theology. And how would one ever be able to know that one’s conception of what one takes as “natural divinity” is an accurate representation and explication of such a reality? If both Rome and Orthodoxy agree that God’s essence (i.e., his nature) is inscrutable, doesn’t a “natural theology” somehow ultimately and essentially come up short?

I certainly affirm the goodness of Dr. Liccione’s intentions, and those of his colleagues, who are pursuing, to the best of their ability, the union they believe is warranted between the two churches, Rome and the Orthodox. And I can sympathize with their reaction: they’re attempting to offer union with what they think preserves Orthodox doctrinal integrity, only to be rebuffed.

But what I think they fail to understand is that it’s not just a matter of Orthodox not wanting to change how they practice their theology, or not wanting to give up a certain metaphysical view, it’s that Orthodox don’t accept the starting presuppositions to begin with (i.e., that natural theology has any sort of authority over revealed theology, or that revealed theology must be consonant with natural theology). In other words, it’s asking Orthodox to not be Orthodox.

And as they say where I come from, that dog don’t hunt.

2 thoughts on “The DD Dog That Just Don’t Hunt, or Why the DD Ecumenical Overture Doesn’t Work

  1. Dear Clifton,

    I enjoyed reading this post and with you I came to the same conclusions. When Mike first posted his article, I immediately responded with how I believe “development” has always occured in the Church. What I was accused of preaching by our Catholic friends was an attempt to lay the groundwork for the Orthodox worldview. Part of this was done in naivete, because I still sometimes forget we don’t speak the same language, that the ontological differences between the Churches are profound enough to not be able to correlate even one bit. In a sense, I could even argue that there is no such thing as “Orthodox metaphysics” and that when we employ such language we fall into the framework they have laid to explain things which for the most are unexplainable. It just becomes one more of their categories, neatly packaged, theoretically explaining the Roman Catholic Church’s anti-real existence and the anti-reality she creates in her wake.
    I also commented on my site about my experience in the combox debates under “The Orthodox Church is the True Church!” I’d be interested in your take of the article.

    In Christ and in fellowship,

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