Reason and Scripture Have Wax Noses: The Need For the Teaching Office of the Church
In taking the message of the Gospel to unbelievers, we have the certainty of the Magisterium behind us, and not a one of us--if we are faithful to the teaching authority of the Church--will ever be found to have wax noses.
The medieval scholastics had a pithy saying about reason. Reason has a "wax nose," a nasus cereus. It is a curious saying intended vividly to suggest that reason is malleable and, like a pliable wax nose, can be pointed in any direction one wishes. Scripture also has a "wax nose," and seems to be infinitely plastic. Thanks be to God for the charism, the gift, of the Magisterium.
As an example of reason's pliability, we might take the example of abortion. A reasonable argument can be made that condemns abortion as a manifest intrinsic evil which the law in no event should allow. Unfortunately, the same reason can develop an argument to the contrary, to justify abortion as a good.
That reason shows abortion to be an intrinsic evil--without any reference to Scripture--we see very ably done by, for example, David S. Oderberg in his book Applied Ethics. Yet reason can be recruited to justify abortion as, for example, in the famous essay of Judith Jarvis Thomson entitled "A Defense of Abortion" which is de rigeur reading in most modern ethics classes.
I am convinced that Professor Oderberg is right, and Professor Jarvis wrong. But Professor Oderberg and Professor Thomson could argue all day, and it is highly unlikely that either will convince the other one of whose reasoning is wrong.
There appears to be no solution in pure reason. The problem thus becomes intractable, and we end up simply arguing about it all day. But, surely, both camps cannot be right?
During the Protestant Reformation, something similar happened to Scripture. Theologians began to note that Scripture, like reason, also has a wax nose. That is to say, Scripture, like reason, can be pointed in about any direction one wishes. Scripture is not by any means perspicuous. It does not interpret itself. It requires reason to understand and interpret it, and so, ultimately, it suffers from reason's wax-nose syndrome.
The wax nose of Scripture can shown by the fact that Scripture is interpreted by the infamous retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong in his book Living in Sin? to allow homosexual acts and consider them good, but the Christian counselor Joe Dallas in his book The Gay Gospel: How Pro-Gay Advocates Misread the Bible comes to the exact opposite conclusion.
Again, we could set Bishop Spong and Mr. Dallas across from each other all day, and it is highly unlikely that either will budge one bit from his assurance that the Bible teaches what he thinks it teaches on homosexuality. We reach an impasse, with no one to tell us who is right and who is wrong. Who is it that is "writhing Scripture," and who is not? Surely they both cannot be right?
Cardinal Ratzinger drew upon the old scholastic saying in pointing out this problem of intractability in a speech in August 2002 entitled "The Beauty and the Truth of Christ" given in Rimini, Italy: "All too often," Cardinal Ratzinger stated in the speech, "arguments fall on deaf ears because in our world too many contradictory arguments compete with one another, so much so that we are spontaneously reminded of the medieval theologians' description of reason, that it 'has a wax nose': In other words, it can be pointed in any direction, if one is clever enough. Everything makes sense, is so convincing, whom should we trust?"
What all this suggests is that neither reason alone--sola ratio, which is the fundamental axiom of the Enlightenment--nor Scripture or faith alone--sola scriptura or sola fide, which are the mottoes of the Protestant Reformers--are adequate to the task of answering the question of whom we should trust. We feel we can't trust people with wax noses who can make them point anywhere they want.
"Lord to whom shall we go?" (John 6:68)
The Lord, of course, knew that reason and Scripture have wax noses. In Ecclesiastes, we learn of King Solomon's search for wisdom, and his desperation at finding it without recourse to God. "Behold, only this have I found out: God made mankind straight, but men have had recourse to many calculations." (Ecclesiastes 7:29)
That reason and scripture have wax noses can be found (although not in so many words) in Scripture itself. St. Paul spoke of the rationalization of sin--reasoned sin--the result of futile reasoning and darkened hearts. (Rom. 1:21) That's why moral philosophers and theologians have to speak of right reason, as distinguished from reasoning which is erroneous. St. Peter spoke of how St. Paul's letters and the other Scriptures are misinterpreted by people to their own destruction. (2 Pet. 3:16).
St. Paul seems to believe that reason has a wax nose. St. Peter seems to believe that Scripture has a wax ...
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