Consider the following claims:
(1) The sun moves but the earth is stationary.
(2) God is identical to his properties.
(3) The walls of Jericho fell at the rate described by the formula m(dv/dt)= mg – kv
(4) My neighbour Timothy was baptised yesterday.
(5) Jesus Christ was risen from the dead.
(6) Jesus Christ had levantine features.
(7) God has middle knowledge.
All of the above claims, directly or indirectly, involves Biblical facts and claims. But are all of them necessary for theological orthodoxy? To investigate this issue I would like to take us on a detour through a curious late 17th century Roman Catholic debate. I think it would serve as a useful analogy for how to think through this issue.
In the 17th century there was a Jesuit thesis which caused a storm of controversy concerning the scope and limits of church infallibility. The thesis goes that we can only have moral, not infallible, certainty as to who the pope was. The argument was rather simple. While the Roman Catholic will claim that whoever is ordained Bishop of Rome is the successor of Peter as a matter of divine revelation and/or apostolic faith, it cannot possibly be claimed that whether a specific man, who lived thousands of years after the apostles died, is the pope is something revealed by the apostles, if for no other reason that by the time such a man was born the apostles were already dead. Whether or not a specific man is the pope is dependent upon contingent post-apostolic historical claims, e.g. that such a man has been validly baptised, did not receive his papacy by simony, etc. As such, while with our reason we can have a very high degree of certitude as to whether a specific man is pope, it cannot be an infallible revealed proposition or part of the apostolic deposit of faith.
The Pope was naturally unamused and the inquisition was summoned to investigate these claims. The inquisition itself, in all fairness to them, was rather reluctant. They were aware that the Jesuit thesis had been held by eminent masters, scholars, and teachers, and a great body of theological opinion was on their side. Nevertheless, they put them under house arrest and investigated the matter. None of the doctors consulted would agree that this opinion was heretical, while they conceded that it maybe “scandalous”. Eventually they were all released, but it spawned a subsequent debate as to the scope of ecclesiastical infallibility and whether it was restricted to what was merely committed to the apostles or was there continuous revelation which extended to post-apostolic facts.
The point of this mini-episode in church history is a general one: there does seem to be a distinction between facts and claims revealed to the prophets and apostles, and other facts which may involve revealed claims, but cannot be themselves considered to be revealed (unless one wants to speak of natural revelation, which is a different thing from the body of revelation committed to the apostles and prophets). Indeed our natural reason/natural revelation can tell us that a certain man has been baptised, was not elected by simony, etc, but it cannot possibly be said to be part of the apostolic deposit of faith.
It seems to me, as such, that the line between theological orthodoxy and heresy has to be drawn between facts revealed and known to the apostles and prophets, and all those facts which, though it may “involve” apostolic/prophetic revelation, cannot strictly be said to be part of it. Now all denominations, Protestant or Roman Catholic, etc, accepts that divine revelation ceased with the apostles. Further, traditionally, all sides accept that the apostles had perfect and complete knowledge of the faith, it is impossible to improve on their understanding of the faith, as such, developments and clarifications of the faith was impossible. If something was not on the apostle’s mind, it was not part of the apostolic deposit of faith.
If this line of argument is correct, then its application to the seven cases above is pretty straight forward. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead is orthodoxy and necessary because it’s literally what the apostles proclaimed. What acceleration the walls of Jericho fell, even if it may involve biblical facts, are not themselves part of the prophetic revelation, because Newtonian mechanics was simply not what was on the prophet’s mind. Whether the earth is “really” stationary or not was also not the concern of the Psalmists or prophet, they were simply going off by appearances, not with cosmological reality. The validity of my neighbour’s baptism is contingent upon whether the minister used the right formula or even if my neighbour showed up. What’s the right formula maybe a revealed apostolic proposition, but whether my neighbour showed up for his baptism is not.
If so, then what about the claim that God is identical to his properties? Or does God have middle knowledge? Such a claim will depend on what one means or believes about properties or identity, or realism about counterfactuals. But here’s the crux of the problem: the nature of properties or counterfactuals themselves are not part of the apostolic revelation, anymore than the nature of gravitational acceleration with air resistance. God being identical to his properties, for example, would certainly be false if nominalism or conceptualism were true, that properties so called were nothing more than terms or words or mental concepts. If so, how then can God be identical to words or ideas in people’s heads? I’m not here arguing whether or not nominalism/conceptualism were true (I happen to think those are pseudo-problems), I’m simply saying that the truth of universals is simply not a revealed claim, it was simply not in the minds of the prophets or apostles nor did they discuss or teach anything about universals anywhere. If it were not a revealed claim, it cannot possibly be necessary for orthodoxy.
I suggest, as such, that this analysis be applied more generally to the claims of classical theism. If a claim of theirs involves propositions which were not revealed or known explicitly to the prophets or apostles, then it cannot be necessary for theological orthodoxy.
Having said that, this doesn’t discount the necessity of fallible contingent reason to determine what’s on the apostles and prophets mind, e.g. the need to having historical and linguistic studies into the culture and thought world of the prophets and apostles, philological studies, semantics, etc, to determine what the apostles or prophets intended, meant or referred to by their words. But the use of reason to determine what’s constitutes revealed content in the apostolic mind is qualitatively different from claiming that conclusions arrived by reason by itself is theological dogma under some specious argument that all truth is God’s truth. Otherwise Newtonian mechanics will itself become necessary for orthodoxy.