Not Just an Empty Suit
January 8, 2007 § 24 Comments
A doctrine of the Faith is a special kind of truth about the Faith: it is a truth of the Faith which, when understood correctly, it is immoral to reject. When one rejects a doctrine we call it heresy.
But a doctrine is not merely a single sentence expressing a truth of the faith.
We say that the Deposit of the Faith (that is, the body of doctrine which is one aspect of the Faith) is finite. But it seems to me that there is a misunderstanding (perhaps a mutual one) in the air about what that means, and specifically what it implies with respect to sentences written about doctrine. In objecting to my criticism of positivist understandings of development of doctrine, a number of my interlocutors seem to be presuming that there are only a finite number of actual or potential sentences – formal expressions of doctrine – which compel assent: that is, sentences which it would be immoral to reject once understood properly. This is not the case. The Deposit of the Faith may be a finite deposit in the sense that it does not encompass every true thing whatsoever, but it is not finite in the sense that it generates only a finite number of sentences which, when properly understood, it would be immoral to reject.
A simple example may be helpful. It is a doctrine of the Faith that Mary is perpetually virgin. Clearly to assert “Mary is not perpetually virgin” is therefore a heresy. If a heresy is merely the rejection of a particular sentence rather than a rejection of a particular doctrinal truth, though, then it is not a heresy (though it may still be incorrect) to say that Jesus had biological full siblings as a result of intercourse between Mary and Joseph.
A heresy is not just the rejection of a particular formula. A heresy is the rejection of a particular truth.
Given any single doctrine or body of doctrine, there are an infinite number of true sentences which can be written about that doctrine which have the property that, properly understood, it is heresy to reject the particular sentence in question as false.
Unless (as always) I am mistakes somewhere, critics of my appeal to incompleteness to show the falsity of positivist understandings of development of doctrine have to assume, in order for the criticism to be valid, not just that the body of doctrine is finite in terms of the truths it represents; but that it is finite in terms of the number of true sentences which compel assent that it represents. And it is false that the Deposit of the Faith is finite in terms of the number of true sentences which compel assent that it represents.