The Gospel Coalition and the Vividness Criterion

Mar 5th, 2017 | By | Category: Blog Posts

This is the first in an occasional series on how cognitive biases frequently — and often unknowingly — affect ecumenical dialogue between Protestants and Catholics. 1

Once when I was studying abroad in Ireland, I hitched a ride with an elderly Irish couple who had abandoned Catholicism for evangelical Protestantism (I myself, knee-deep in R.C.Sproul and J.I. Packer, was increasingly embracing the Reformed faith). Driving through the northwestern Irish countryside, I noticed the occasional Marian statue visible in front lawns and on secluded hilltops. I asked my gracious hosts the purpose of these statues. Mary, the Irish couple explained, was worshipped in the Emerald Isle with equal if not superior devotion as the Lord Jesus Himself. Such an account made sense to me: was it not my own Irish-American Catholic grandparents who prayed the rosary every day, uttering scores of Hail Mary’s, seeming to far outpace their devotion to Christ? Moreover, the Irish landscape was littered with Mary statues, not Jesus statues or crosses. The experience, coupled with my vivid memories of my own extended family’s devotional practices, had a marked effect on my perception of Catholicism, one that lingered far after devout Catholics explained to me the difference between the devotional concepts of latria, dulia, and hyperdulia.2 For a long time, such Catholic apologetics — though reasonable and logical — could not override my own first-hand exposure to Marian devotion. Indeed, I often dismissed them as vain Catholic attempts to provide a veneer of legitimacy to what seemed a blatant violation of God’s commandments against idols and graven images.

I recognize now how cognitive biases — in this case what researchers call the “vividness criterion” — limited my ability to reasonably and effectively evaluate evidence either in favor of or against Marian devotion in Catholicism.  Cognitive biases, according to one definition, are “systematic patterns of deviation from norm or rationality in judgment, whereby inferences about other people and situations may be drawn in an illogical fashion.”3 When cognitive biases are in play, “individuals create their own ‘subjective social reality’ from their perception of the input.” The idea of cognitive biases has been around for a long time, though their application has often been limited to such fields as psychology or business. Indeed, such organizations as the Center for Applied Rationality help businesses identify and effectively address common cognitive biases. I would offer that religion and spirituality, and certainly ecumenical dialogue between Protestants and Catholics, can benefit from deeper familiarity with this particular field of study.

The Vividness Criterion Cognitive Bias

Cognitive science has recognized that the impact of information on the human mind is only imperfectly related to its true value as evidence.  This is particularly the case when specific information is vivid, concrete, and personal. Such evidence often has a greater impact on our thinking than insipid, abstract information, even if the latter may actually have substantially greater value as evidence.4 Take two conclusions Richard Nisbett and Lee Ross have drawn from research on cognitive biases:

  • Information that people perceive directly, that they hear with their own ears or see with their own eyes, is likely to have greater impact than information received secondhand that may have greater evidential value.
  • Case histories and anecdotes will have greater impact than more informative but abstract aggregate or statistical data.

More often than not, events that we experience personally are more memorable than those that we only read about. Research has also shown that concrete words are easier to remember than abstract words.5 What this means is that information with the qualities explained above is more likely to be stored and remembered than abstract reasoning. It will in turn have a greater immediate effect and continuing impact on our thinking.6

This is not to say that concrete, sensory data should not enjoy a certain priority when weighing evidence. When abstract theory or secondhand reports are contradicted by personal observation, there is good reason to vote in favor of one’s own experiences (“seeing is believing”). Moreover, such data can oftentimes serve to confirm abstract theory or secondhand information. However, this socio-cultural bias in favor of firsthand experience can often result in our being misled by our own observations.

Such an event can happen when a single, vivid case in its impression outweighs a much larger body of evidence, or conclusions that logically stem from abstract reasoning. 7 Here’s an example: imagine you are considering buying a new car. A close friend of yours tells you all about his horrible repair experiences with his Honda Accord, while he lauds the glories of his Jeep Wrangler. Yet Consumer Reports — using statistics drawn from such empirical data as annual repair costs — consistently demonstrates that Hondas represent a far more affordable car choice than Jeeps. Despite this data, you may be inclined to trust the testimony of one friend over a much larger body of evidence, which in this case is the verifiable testimony of many strangers. The problem is that the vividness of an intimate friend’s testimony may press you to ignore the equally valid testimony of many others; testimony that, when added together, all things being equal, holds far more evidentiary weight than a single friend. Nisbett and Ross call this the “man-who” syndrome, as in, “I know a man who…”8

John Piper’s Vividness Criterion Bias


John Piper (left), Donald Carson (middle), and
Tim Keller (right) speaking at The Gospel Coalition.

Such “man-who” errors are often present in theological debate or ecumenical exchanges. One example I would like to explore comes from an October 2016 roundtable between Reformed Baptist pastor John Piper, PCA pastor Tim Keller, and Biblical scholar Donald Carson, hosted by The Gospel Coalition. In their conversation, part of a series in honor of the upcoming 500th anniversary of the Reformation, they name their favorite books on the Reformation. John Piper notes his affinity for David Daniell’s biography of William Tyndale. Piper then references a recent tour of Europe — including Poland, Switzerland, and Italy — and argues how his trip, commensurate with Tyndale’s own story, underscores a severe theological problem across predominantly Catholic Europe. He observes:

“I just wanted to weep over the negatives of the Roman Catholic Church, in Italy in particular…I heard of an 80-year-old nun who was converted recently who had never read the Gospel of John. 80 years in the service of the church and never laid eyes on the Gospel of John. That makes me mad. That really makes me mad…. They [European Catholic authorities] burned people alive for reading the English Bible.”

In this case, the “man who” is the Italian nun who had never read the Gospel of John, an anecdote that leads John Piper to conclude that the Catholic Church — both during the Reformation era and now — obstructs people’s access to Holy Scripture. Does the vividness of the anecdote, however, warrant the assessment of the Catholic Church, either in doctrine or in practice? Hardly.

First, let’s closely examine Piper’s wording, which notes that an Italian nun had never “read” or “laid eyes on” the Gospel of John. This is significant because the Catholic Mass contains extensive passages from both the Old and New Testaments, so much so that if one were to attend Mass every day for two years (which all priests and many nuns are required to do), one would hear 71.5% of the New Testament, 92.5% of the Gospel of John, and 13.5% of the Old Testament. Thus, the nun provided in John Piper’s “man who” example almost certainly heard practically the entire Gospel of John, unless she neglected her obligation/exhortation for Mass attendance, or was entirely remiss in her participation in the Mass.

Piper’s objection is thus question-begging, in that it presupposes a Protestant theological paradigm, stemming from a sola scriptura framework, where the reading of Scripture is considered superior to that of hearing it. Such argumentation imposes on the Catholic paradigm a Protestant evaluation criterion. Reading a text may indeed have certain benefits over having it read aloud — one may more easily examine vocabulary or syntax, or consult other related texts in the same book — but it is simply not the case that hearing texts read aloud results in little or no integration of the content in question. Until the spread of literacy, the vast majority of Christians had never “read” the Bible.9 Indeed, for most Christians in the New Testament era, their exposure to Scripture, as well as the epistles of St. Paul and others directed at them, was through the texts being read aloud. Presumably these people understood enough via audition to convert to Christianity and grow in the faith, something that is presumed by the New Testament writers themselves (c.f. Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 1:2, Philippians 1:6). To argue that the beliefs of Christians who were unable to read are inadequate is to call into question the adequacy or legitimacy of the faith of the vast majority of Christians in history, to include most in the Apostolic era (and possibly even some of the Apostles themselves!).

Moreover, in our own era, many non-clerical Catholics either attend Mass every day, or at least read the daily Scriptural excerpts found in the Mass. Indeed, the Catholic Church expressly encourages this practice, and there are several Catholic publications that provide all Biblical readings for the Mass in a host of languages throughout the world, including Italian. There was thus nothing preventing the Italian nun in question from reading the Gospel of John if she so desired — and indeed, many helps within Catholicism to do exactly that. All the same, whether we are speaking of reading or hearing the Bible, that an 80-year-old Italian nun would have never read the Gospel of John — when daily Mass attendance over a two year period would mean she would have heard 92.5% of that Gospel — would seem to speak more of Piper’s question-begging perspective regarding how people should integrate information into their intellects than of some Catholic disregard for Scripture.


German Wenceslas Bible made
for King Wenceslaus IV of
Bohemia in the 1390s.

What of Piper’s arguments regarding the Medieval/Renaissance Church and Scripture? The historical record is clear that the Catholic Church permitted the translation of Scripture into vernacular languages prior to the Reformation, even if the Church at particular historical moments — and for specific (often theological or disciplinary) reasons — sought to limit people’s access to the Bible. 10 Indeed, there were a number of versions of the Bible in the common tongue available in Europe at the time of Tyndale and Luther, including in German, Italian, French, Russian, and Bohemian. Dave Armstrong’s article cited above provides references to an extensive amount of historical research demonstrating the breadth of access even the European laity had to the Bible prior to the Reformation.11 It is thus a gross oversimplification to claim that the European Christians of the pre-Reformation and Reformation era were ignorant of the content of Holy Scripture, or that the Catholic Church was de facto opposed to Biblical literacy.

Finally, although less central to Piper’s particular charges, it is worth examining an implicit belief in his comments: that Catholicism undervalues the role of Holy Scripture. As noted above, such a belief to a significant degree stems from certain question-begging premises that presuppose a Protestant interpretive paradigm. It does this by presuming that the reading of Scripture is a more important variable in the life of the Christian than other markers — say, participation in the Holy Liturgy and the Eucharist, or prayer, or many other acts of piety. All of these activities, it is safe to presume, would be central to the life of an Italian nun, given that most Catholic religious orders emphasize them. Moreover, all of these activities have strong Scriptural warrant, and, from a Catholic interpretive paradigm, are central to the Christian life (c.f. John 6:22-66; Hebrews 10:25; 1 Thessalonians 5:17; James 1:19-27). Indeed, a case could be made that such activities are as important, if not more important, than reading one’s Bible, especially given the fact noted above that most Christians in the Apostolic era (and far beyond) were unable to read Scripture, and relied on other elements of Christianity, such as the liturgy, to deepen their knowledge of God. Otherwise one would have to hold that the vast majority of Christians who lived prior to the widespread growth of literacy in Christendom (and the advent of the printing press) were unable to be faithful or “complete” Christians, simply because they were illiterate.

All the same, it is worth dispelling common Protestant misconceptions regarding the role of Scripture in the life of the Catholic Church. As earlier noted, every Mass, at a minimum, features readings from the Psalms and the Gospels, and typically the other books of the Old and New Testaments. Moreover, as such Biblical scholars as Scott Hahn have noted, the Mass is itself filled with either explicit references or allusions to scores of passages from the Bible.12 For a Catholic to participate in and know the Mass is to be immersed in the language and imagery of Holy Scripture. This is because the Catholic Church has always taught, often through its Magisterial office, that the role of Holy Scripture within the life of the Church is, and must be, foundational. Consider, for example, the 16th century ecumenical Council of Trent, the Church’s response to the Reformation. In its Decree Concerning the Canonical Scriptures, it declares that the Gospel of Christ was promulgated first from His own mouth, then the mouths of his Apostles, and then to “written books and in the unwritten traditions.” Furthermore,  the Church “receives and venerates with a feeling of piety and reverence all the books both of the Old and New Testaments,” which are “dictated by the Holy Ghost.”

More recent Church documents such as Dei Verbum, promulgated at the Second Vatican Council in 1965, meanwhile exhort the Church not only to venerate Sacred Scripture as the “supreme rule of faith,” but that there be “easy access” of it to all Catholics, including the laity. Moreover, the text exhorts clergy to “hold fast” to the Bible and carefully read and study it, a charge that would certainly apply as well to members of religious orders, including nuns such as the Italian nun cited by Piper. These two texts from the 16th and 20th centuries are but two of many authoritative documents of the Catholic Church that validate the significance — nay, preeminence — of Scripture in the worship and doctrine in Catholicism.13

Conclusion

The case of John Piper and the Italian nun is but one example of “man-who” argument. As Nisbett and Ross, Richard Heuer, and many other researchers and analysts have argued, the vivid experience rarely merits the evidential weight an individual intends when he cites it, nor does it merit the weight such examples are accorded by their recipients. The most serious consequence of the “vividness as criterion” cognitive bias is that frequently the most valuable evidence will effect little influence, simply because the evidence is abstract or is perceived to be less emotionally or anecdotally compelling.14 Indeed, this may very well be the case with this article when compared with the video clip in which Piper very emotionally and powerfully makes his claim!

To reiterate, this is not to say that such vivid, personal anecdotes have no place in ecumenical dialogue or even in theological discourse or apologetics. However, such experiences typically cannot of themselves serve as sufficient evidence to substantiate important theological claims, such as Piper’s arguments cited above regarding Catholicism and the Bible. Moreover, such information frequently takes precedence over data that should — all things being equal — hold more evidentiary weight. Recognizing (and addressing) our own propensity to rely on the vividness criterion as a rhetorical crutch will help improve our own theological thinking, and hopefully ecumenical dialogue as well.15

 

  1. The appropriation of cognitive biases for use in theology has warrant in official Catholic teaching on the use of human science in understanding Church doctrine. The Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith in 1989 issued this statement: “theology’s proper task is to understand the meaning of revelation and this, therefore, requires the utilization of philosophical concepts which provide a ‘solid and correct understanding of man, the world, and God’ and can be employed in a reflection upon revealed doctrine… Finally, a consultation of the ‘human sciences’ is also necessary to understand better the revealed truth about man and the moral norms for his conduct, setting these in relation to the sound findings of such sciences.” See Avery Cardinal Dulles, SJ, Magisterium: Teacher and Guardian of the Faith (Naples, Florida: Sapientia Press, 2007), 142. []
  2.  The concepts of latria, dulia, and hyperdulia require a more thorough explanation than I can adequately provide here. Put simply, the three Latin terms differentiate degrees of Catholic devotion towards the saints, Mary, and the Trinitarian God. []
  3. Haselton, M. G.; Nettle, D. & Andrews, P. W. (2005). “The evolution of cognitive bias.” In D. M. Buss (Ed.), The Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology (Hoboken, NJ, US: John Wiley & Sons Inc), 724–746. See also Bless, H.; Fiedler, K. & Strack, F. (2004). Social cognition: How individuals construct social reality (Hove and New York: Psychology Press), 2, []
  4. Most of the ideas and examples in this section are inspired by those from Richard Nisbett and Lee Ross, Human Inference: Strategies and Shortcomings of Social Judgment (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1980), Chapter 3. []
  5.  A. Paivio, Imagery and Verbal Processes (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1971). []
  6.  Richard J. Heuer, Jr., Psychology of Intelligence Analysis (Washington, D.C.: Center for the Study of Intelligence, 1999), 116. []
  7. Heuer, Psychology, 117. []
  8.   Nisbett and Ross, Human, 56. []
  9. Historian Robert Louis Wilken has noted that “oral tradition” was commonly preferred over written books in the early Church. Moreover, many scholars have noted that most early Christians were illiterate and were thus exposed to the Scriptures through their being heard in the liturgy. See Robert Louis Wilken, The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012), 42-43. This was common practice in the ancient world, where most people’s beliefs were transmitted through oral tradition. Many of the great texts of the Greco-Roman tradition, such as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, were committed to memory by bards, who would recite them for illiterate audiences in the ancient world. Historians have noted that ancient, non-literate cultures maintained an impressive ability to recall large bodies of texts spoken audibly. See G.S Kirk’s introduction in The Odyssey, tr. Walter Shewring (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980). []
  10. Furthermore, prior to the invention of the printing press, it was also exhorbitantly expensive and time-consuming to make copies of the Bible, which was a significant contributing factor to the limited access of the Scriptures to the common people. []
  11. For those interested in Piper’s remarks regarding William Tyndale, it is important to recognize that the common portrayal of Tyndale as a virtuous clergyman seeking to offer the Scriptures in the vernacular to the English people is overly simplistic, and does not take proper account of the role Tyndale played in pushing interpretive authority of the Scriptures out of the hands of the Catholic Church and into the hands of secular authorities. As Ray Stamper and I have noted (relying on Scott Hahn and Benjamin Wiker’s research), Tyndale’s book, The Obedience of a Christian Man, is an apologetic for caesaropapism, with the following ramifications for the Word of God. Tyndale argues not only for English translations of the Bible, but also for a rejection of papal authority in favor of submission to secular powers who are “ordained by God” and must be obeyed, even if they “be the greatest tyrant in the world.” These secular authorities would then become the guardians of true Christian doctrine and Holy Writ — what Hahn and Wiker call the “politicization of the Bible.” []
  12. Scott and Kimberly Hahn, Rome Sweet Home (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), 87-88. See also Scott Hahn, Letter and Spirit: From Written Text to Living Word in the Liturgy (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2005). []
  13.  Below are several relevant paragraphs from Dei Verbum, one of the council documents:

    21. The Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures just as she venerates the body of the Lord, since, especially in the sacred liturgy, she unceasingly receives and offers to the faithful the bread of life from the table both of God’s word and of Christ’s body. She has always maintained them, and continues to do so, together with sacred tradition, as the supreme rule of faith, since, as inspired by God and committed once and for all to writing, they impart the word of God Himself without change, and make the voice of the Holy Spirit resound in the words of the prophets and Apostles. Therefore, like the Christian religion itself, all the preaching of the Church must be nourished and regulated by Sacred Scripture. For in the sacred books, the Father who is in heaven meets His children with great love and speaks with them; and the force and power in the word of God is so great that it stands as the support and energy of the Church, the strength of faith for her sons, the food of the soul, the pure and everlasting source of spiritual life. Consequently these words are perfectly applicable to Sacred Scripture: “For the word of God is living and active” (Heb. 4:12) and “it has power to build you up and give you your heritage among all those who are sanctified” (Acts 20:32; see 1 Thess. 2:13).

    22. Easy access to Sacred Scripture should be provided for all the Christian faithful. That is why the Church from the very beginning accepted as her own that very ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament which is called the septuagint; and she has always given a place of honor to other Eastern translations and Latin ones especially the Latin translation known as the vulgate. But since the word of God should be accessible at all times, the Church by her authority and with maternal concern sees to it that suitable and correct translations are made into different languages, especially from the original texts of the sacred books. And should the opportunity arise and the Church authorities approve, if these translations are produced in cooperation with the separated brethren as well, all Christians will be able to use them…. 25. Therefore, all the clergy must hold fast to the Sacred Scriptures through diligent sacred reading and careful study, especially the priests of Christ and others, such as deacons and catechists who are legitimately active in the ministry of the word. This is to be done so that none of them will become “an empty preacher of the word of God outwardly, who is not a listener to it inwardly” since they must share the abundant wealth of the divine word with the faithful committed to them, especially in the sacred liturgy. The sacred synod also earnestly and especially urges all the Christian faithful, especially Religious, to learn by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures the “excellent knowledge of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 3:8). “For ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.” Therefore, they should gladly put themselves in touch with the sacred text itself, whether it be through the liturgy, rich in the divine word, or through devotional reading, or through instructions suitable for the purpose and other aids which, in our time, with approval and active support of the shepherds of the Church, are commendably spread everywhere. And let them remember that prayer should accompany the reading of Sacred Scripture, so that God and man may talk together; for “we speak to Him when we pray; we hear Him when we read the divine saying.”

    []

  14. As Nisbett and Ross have observed through their research, personal anecdotes, actual accounts of people’s responsiveness or indifference to information sources, and controlled experiments can all be cited ad infinitum to “illustrate the proposition that data summaries, despite their logically compelling implications, have less impact than does inferior but more vivid evidences.” See Nisbett and Ross, Human, 57. []
  15.  My intention here is also not to claim that only Protestants are guilty of the vividness criterion bias. I have witnessed Catholics make similar logical errors. For example, some Catholics have met severe antinomian Protestants who believe the commonly held “once saved always saved” doctrine excuses them from pursuing moral uprightness or holiness, as if it has little or no effect on this life or the next. I have witnessed such Catholics argue, based on meeting such individuals, that Protestantism allows for — or even encourages — all manner of immoral behavior, even though the overwhelmingly opinion within the Reformed community is that sanctification and personal behavior is central to the Christian life. Indeed, many Reformed thinkers have argued that moral uprightness is a sign of one’s election. []

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  1. A further comment re: the “vivid” story offered by John Piper regarding the Italian nun who had never “read” the Gospel of John: Perfectae Caritatis, the Decree on the Adaptation and Renewal of Religion Life, proclaimed by Pope Paul VI on October 28, 1965 as part of the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II), speaks directly to the necessity of Catholic religious studying and knowing Holy Scripture. Paragraph six reads:

    Drawing therefore upon the authentic sources of Christian spirituality, members of religious communities should resolutely cultivate both the spirit and practice of prayer. In the first place they should have recourse daily to the Holy Scriptures in order that, by reading and meditating on Holy Writ, they may learn “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:8)

    If a Catholic priest, brother, nun, or any other religious were to fail in their responsibility to know Holy Scripture (which is not necessarily the case in Piper’s example), that failure would be in contradistinction from the explicit teaching of the Catholic Church.

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