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Reason and Scripture Have Wax Noses: The Need For the Teaching Office of the Church

By Andrew M. Greenwell, Esq.
September 10th, 2012
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

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

CORPUS CHRISTI, TX (Catholic Online) - 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. 

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 nose.

The Gospels tell us that, in distinction to the teachers of the Mosaic law, Jesus taught with infallibility, or, as the Gospels put it, "as one who had authority."  Jesus did not teach with the wax noses of the scribes and teachers of the Mosaic law.  (Matt. 7:29)  From a physical perspective, Christ's infallibility, his teaching authority, however, would leave us once he ascended into heaven.

The Lord therefore knew that, after His ascension, we would be in need of something else, something other than wax-nosed reason and wax-nosed scripture if we were to know the words of eternal life.  And He generously provided to us His children by assuring that His authority, and His infallibility, would remain on earth even after His ascension into heaven. 

Jesus told His apostles: "I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth, which the world cannot accept, because it neither sees nor knows it.  But you know it, because it remains with you, and will be in you.  I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you. . . . The Advocate, the Holy Spirit that the Father will send in my name--He will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you."  (John 14:16-18; 26). 

It is the gift of the Holy Spirit in the Church promised by our Lord that is our remedy for the wax nose of reason and the wax nose of Scripture. 

As the Catechism of the Catholic Church describes this gift: "The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone.  Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ.  This means that the task of interpretation has been entrusted to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome." [CCC 85]

This gift given to us by Jesus is what we call the Magisterium, a term derived from the Latin magister, or teacher. 

Under certain circumstances, the Magisterium or teaching authority of the Church enjoys, as a result of the promise of Christ himself, the charism or gift of infallibility.  When exercised, the infallibility of the Church's teaching office provides certainty in matters of faith, matters of speculative reason that relate to the faith, or matters of practical reason that relate to the moral law.

"The supreme degree of participation in the authority of Christ is ensured by the charism [the word charism comes from Greek charisma, meaning a "gift" of God] of infallibility. This infallibility extends as far as does the deposit of divine Revelation; it also extends to all those elements of doctrine, including morals, without which the saving truths of the faith cannot be preserved, explained, or observed." [CCC 2035]

"The authority of the Magisterium extends also to the specific precepts of the natural law, because their observance, demanded by the Creator, is necessary for salvation. In recalling the prescriptions of the natural law, the Magisterium of the Church exercises an essential part of its prophetic office of proclaiming to men what they truly are and reminding them of what they should be before God."  [CCC 2036]

Thanks be to God for the charism, the gift, of the Magisterium.  It is what assures that our reason and our Scriptures do not have wax noses. 

In the examples given above, the Magisterium, of course, has plainly taught us that abortion is an intrinsic evil, for example in Pope John Paul II's encyclical Evangelium vitae.  It has taught that homosexual acts are intrinsically evil as, for example, in the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith's Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church Homosexualitatis problema

Without the gift of the Magisterium, our salvation would be founded on wax noses--either our own or someone else's whose decisions we decided to follow--and it is inconceivable that a good God, Who promised He would not leave us orphans, would have left us floundering so when our salvation was at stake.  

Because of this great gift of the Church's Magisterium, we can know with the certainty of faith, that Oderberg is right and Jarvis wrong, that Bishop Spong is wrong and Joe Dallas right. 

Because of the gift of the Magisterium, we can understand what St. Peter said many years ago: "We possess the prophetic message that is altogether reliable.  You will do well to be attentive to it, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts."  (2 Pet. 1:19-20)

The assurance of truth--in faith, in reason, and in the natural moral law and its requirements--that the first Christians had after Pentecost and expressed by St. Peter in his epistle, is the same assurance that should burn in our hearts as we labor in the fields of this country, a great part of which is in partibus infdelium, to spread the good news of the Gospel in what has been called the New Evangelization. 

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.

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Andrew M. Greenwell is an attorney licensed to practice law in Texas, practicing in Corpus Christi, Texas.  He is married with three children.  He maintains a blog entirely devoted to the natural law called Lex Christianorum.  You can contact Andrew at agreenwell@harris-greenwell.com.

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