Sunday, May 09, 2004

Dialogue on Sola Scriptura (Particularly John Calvin's and the "Classic Reformation Protestant" Conception) (vs. Kevin Johnson)

By Dave Armstrong (5-9-04)

Kevin Johnson is a Reformed Protestant. His words will be in blue.

* * * * *

First of all, it should be noted that Kevin did not offer any reply whatsoever to the central thesis of my paper (as indicated in its title). No biblical evidences for sola Scriptura were provided, nor were there any arguments to the effect that sola Scriptura would not be self-defeating even if biblical evidence did not exist (I still await such a response from a Protestant, but I surely won't hold my breath). Nevertheless, he does raise some other interesting and worthwhile issues apart from my paper that I will be happy to interact with.

I wrote:
[Y]our task is to show that Scripture somehow excludes the binding nature of Tradition and the Church and asserts this principle. And that clearly must be demonstrated in Scripture itself.
For the benefit of the discussion, let me cut the Gordian knot for you and get to the heart of your objections. Your dilemma is false simply because the classic Reformed position on sola scriptura does in fact include a binding Tradition and a binding Church in terms of teaching, understanding the faith, and interpreting the text.

The Reformers recognized the authority of tradition and the Church in determining matters of doctrine. The Reformers recognized the binding role of the councils in determining orthodoxy. The Reformers recognized the role of the regula fidei (rule of faith) in interpreting Scripture. But, they considered such things in their proper place. The question is not whether or not a binding tradition exists, but what is our ultimate authority in these matters?

It is not my “task to show that Scripture somehow excludes the binding nature of Tradition and the Church and asserts this principle”. I freely grant what you feel I should exclude and so the Gordian knot you propose is quite simply cut in the simple admission of what Reformers like John Calvin clearly taught about this issue.

This is incoherent. Either Calvin and other early Protestants accepted a binding tradition and obligatory assent to church teachings or they did not. You claim that your tradition includes "a binding Tradition and a binding Church in terms of teaching, understanding the faith, and interpreting the text."

I don't see how that can be the case, because if in fact you accepted such decisions and decrees as "binding" then they would have to either be infallible or not. If they were not, then Christians would be bound to theological error and obliged to accept it. If they were, then the position is hardly distinguishable from the Catholic position on authority (excepting which body of teaching and set of authorities are granted allegiance).

My key difficulty with your response is your use of the word "binding." Either you have a different definition than I do, or I have to be shown where in Calvin and other Protestant leaders such concepts are clearly expressed, with the full definition and explication in context.

The incoherence becomes immediately apparent in your words, where you start to back away from what "binding" means:
But, they considered such things in their proper place. The question is not whether or not a binding tradition exists, but what is our ultimate authority in these matters?
This contains a "loophole" big enough for a truck to drive through. All one has to do is say that such-and-such a council or Church proclamation exceeded its proper place and went beyond the Bible or historical precedent ("tradition"?). But how does one do that? One either has to set council against council or church against church (e.g., the failed Luther-Zwingli discussions), or (inevitably) fall back on the individual again.

If councils compete against each other, they obviously are not "binding" and someone has to have authority to determine which is superior to the other (and "binding"). But there can be no such authority in Protestantism, because that would require a "papal figure" which has no warrant in Protestant ecclesiology.

So, failing that, charismatic, authoritarian individuals simply assume arbitrary leadership as the "guarantors" or "exemplars" of Legitimate Tradition and Theology Over Against All That "Roman" Catholic Excess and Corruption and Merely Human Tradition (Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Anabaptist and Anglican leaders, Bucer, Bullinger et al).

Their authority is based on little more than their own proclamation of it and self-anointing. So that doesn't solve the problem. Thus, the individual must decide in the end, and the result is thus as far away from a belief in "binding councils and churches and traditions" as can be imagined.

You appeal to "ultimate authority." Catholics agree, of course, that everything must be consistent with Scripture. We simply have faith enough to believe that God has the power to preserve (apostolic, biblical) Tradition intact, by means of councils and His Church, which are both binding and infallible. You claim that you accept these things as binding also, but when push comes to shove, that really isn't the case apart from Orthodoxy and Catholicism (as Pontificator has eloquently argued), because of the loophole above.

All it takes is for someone or some faction to question whether some authority has exceeded its bounds, and all of a sudden that authority is no longer as "binding" as was claimed. Catholics do not and cannot do this. Our councils and papal proclamations really are binding, and not to be questioned.

That is the practical reality of the situation, no matter how many words like "binding" and "tradition" and "church authority" are thrown out. But beyond this analysis, the statements of Calvin simply do not support this conception. At the very least they are internally incoherent, if they purport to support "binding traditions" -- because they cannot consistently do so within a sola Scriptura framework.

As Pontificator pointed out, the Westminster Confession runs contrary to your assertions:
All synods or councils since the apostles' times, whether general or particular, may err, and many have erred; therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith or practice, but to be used as a help in both. (XXXI, 4)
You talk about "binding tradition" and "binding Church" but that is not how the above passage reads (sorry). You state: "The Reformers recognized the role of the regula fidei (rule of faith) in interpreting Scripture." Unless you wish to separate hermeneutics from the "faith or practice" mentioned above, this expressly contradicts what the Westminster Confession states above.

If you wish to maintain that the Westminster Confession contradicts other utterances of Calvin or other confessions and creeds, and that there is indeed at least one to be found which expresses what you have (and that they "clearly taught" same), feel free. That remains to be seen, as far as I am concerned, and if contradictions along these lines exist even among the so-called "magisterial Reformers" (as they certainly will, if one probes close enough), then that only highlights the problem here considered.

It's the same story with the Second Helvetic Confession of 1566 (Chapter 2 -- "Of Interpreting the Holy Scriptures; and of Fathers, Councils, and Traditions" -- my comments in brackets) :
Interpretations of the Holy Fathers. Wherefore we do not despise the interpretations of the holy Greek and Latin fathers, nor reject their disputations and treatises concerning sacred matters as far as they agree with the Scriptures;

[Who decides where they agree or disagree? There are a host of doctrines where the Fathers en masse contradict Reformed Christianity]

but we modestly dissent from them when they are found to set down things differing from, or altogether contrary to, the Scriptures.

[Who decides what the Scriptures teach? A panel of venerable, grey-bearded Reformed worthies, assembled in 1566?]

Neither do we think that we do them any wrong in this matter; seeing that they all, with one consent, will not have their writings equated with the canonical Scriptures, but command us to prove how far they agree or disagree with them, and to accept what is in agreement and to reject what is in disagreement.

[Yes, as judged by the apostolic Church and its authoritative Councils, and its popes, not by individuals 7,8,9,10 centuries later who count the noses of their comrades in some given sect and conclude that the majority opinion is therefore the "biblical" one]

Councils. And in the same order also we place the decrees and canons of councils. Wherefore we do not permit ourselves, in controversies about religion or matters of
faith, to urge our case with only the opinions of the fathers or decrees of councils; much less by received customs, or by the large number who share the same opinion, or by the prescription of a long time. Who is the judge? Therefore, we do not admit any other judge than God himself, who proclaims by the Holy Scriptures what is true, what is false, what is to be followed, or what to be avoided.

[But of course! God will settle all the issues!!!!!!! Who could argue with that? But as we are not God, but mere men -- and prophets are a relatively rare occurrence -- , there must be some human Christian authority as well - binding in some sense; to some degree. One can, then, either believe that God promised to guide His Church and preserve it free from error, under a properly unified authority, with councils and bishops and a gift of infallibility (as Catholics believe) or that individuals ULTIMATELY decide what is or what is not true, dissenting from councils, Tradition, the Fathers, and apostolic succession alike if needs be]
Again, this is not "binding" conciliar or church authority. It is the furthest thing from it. We find the same thing in Calvin himself (I cite the 1960 McNeill edition of the Institutes). Calvin speaks out of both sides of his mouth. I don't contend that he was being deliberately two-faced; only that his viewpoint on ecclesiology and authority is as incoherent and inconsistent and as naive to human reality as were other aspects of his (and Luther's) thought (just as sola Scriptura itself is ultimately incoherent and self-defeating). In some places, Calvin says stuff that sounds really "Catholic" and "traditional":
What then? You ask, will the councils have no determining authority? Yes, indeed; for I am not arguing here either that all councils are to be condemned or the acts of all to be rescinded . . . But, you will say, you degrade everything, so that every man has the right to accept or reject what the councils decide. Not at all! (IV, 9, 8)
So Calvin denies the reductio he rhetorically describes in the second-to-last sentence. He respects councils, and opposes antinomianism. And so he does. I don't deny that (nor do I have to for my case here to fully succeed). But this is a different notion from the Catholic "binding Councils." Protestants are not bound to these councils, if they can pick and choose from them. Calvin would no doubt say that only the venerable old and wise men would determine when and where the councils erred, not every wild-eyed individual. This is certainly far better than the rampant individualism of Protestantism today, but not by all that much.

It sounds wonderfully pious and idealistic, but in practice it works out the same. The individual will be the final judge, or else he will allow himself to be guided by arbitrary, authoritarian judges like Calvin himself. The result is relative chaos and anarchy and what we indeed see in Protestantism: inability to resolve difficulties because of the initial principles of private judgment and sola Scriptura. Presbyterians can't even agree amongst themselves.

Thus, Calvin (precisely like Luther) exhibited a profound naivete as to how human beings operate. He thought he could maintain a catholic unity by these principles, but he was obviously wrong, and history has abundantly shown that the Catholic warnings about what would happen if these principles were adopted, have come true. But Calvin thinks he knows the answer concerning how councils are to be judged:
[W]e shall determine from Scripture which one's decree is not orthodox. For this is the only sure principle on which to distinguish. (IV, 9, 9; cf. Note 1 for IV, 9, 1; p. 1166 of vol. II)
Well, sure, this is all fine and dandy; all Christians revere Scripture. That is not at issue. But who is the "we"? That is the crucial question here. "We" determine where the errors occur. If this is an individual, then Calvin's system falls prey to what he denies: individuals do indeed judge councils. If it is another group meeting which decides, then on what grounds does it have authority that doesn't also apply to the very council it judged?

It always comes down to accepting some authority based on someone's word alone: that they are the "correct" teaching and the other guy is wrong. Catholics base such authority on apostolic tradition and the authority of bishops assembled in council, led by the pope. Protestants can only give lip service to councils but in the end judge them on their own.

Or they simply place faith in one man (Calvin) or an alternate "council" (the Westminster divines) to deliver the true Christian doctrine to them. But why should anyone think Calvin or the Westminster Assembly was any more divinely commissioned or worthy of authority than Trent or earlier medieval ecumenical councils? And why should the individual have so much responsibility in all this? Well, because Calvin in effect (again, like Luther) placed the individual above the Church:
But they will object that whatever is partly attributed to any one of the saints belongs utterly and completely to the church itself. Even though this has some semblance of truth, I deny that it is true . . . the riches of the church are always far from that supreme perfection of which our adversaries boast. (IV, 8, 12)

But of the promises they habitually allege, many were given just as much to individual believers as to the whole church. (IV, 8. 11)
Calvin falls into the same vicious circle described above when he speaks of Tradition and the Church:
For this reason we freely inveigh against this tyranny of human tradition which is haughtily thrust upon us under the title of the church. For we do not scorn the church (as our adversaries, to heap spite upon us, unjustly and falsely assert); but we give the church the praise of obedience, than which it knows no greater. But grave injury is done to the church by those who make it obstinate against its Lord, when they pretend that it has gone beyond what is permitted by God's Word. (IV, 10, 18)
That brings us full circle back to sola Scriptura and the Bible. If Calvin or his followers today think they can ground their rule of faith in Scripture itself, then let them explicate that grounding. Failing that, I say it is self-defeating, whether this sophisticated Calvinist version under consideration or any other. None can escape the logical circle and arbitrariness, and all must be confronted with biblical indications otherwise.

I am hopeful that you will avoid having me prove things that I have already freely granted.

I am hopeful also that you will understand the above argumentation, explaining why I don't think you have resolved your problem at all. This is not binding conciliar or Church authority. Period. If the individual (or some sub-conciliar gathering or decree) picks and chooses what is good and bad in councils, then those entities are superior to councils and it is nonsensical to speak in terms of their being "bound" to them, by any definitional criteria of what the word "binding" means.

I do think it is interesting the way that we see each other in this argument. I didn't quote the Confession to demonstrate proof for the fact that "the infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself"--I quoted it merely to point out the proper statement of the doctrine

Fine, but that neither undermines nor refutes the observation I made about what you did. You wrote:

The Bible is self-interpreting. It does interpret itself. I refer you to the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 1, paragraph 9 which says: “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself…”

Note what was done here: you make a statement about the Bible, saying that it interprets itself. To back up your contention, you cite the Westminster Confession, which is making a statement about the Bible. Thus, an extra-biblical source is deemed authoritative in matters of the Bible itself. That is not sola Scriptura (to the extent that it is binding -- and I am told that the Westminster Confession is upon Calvinists); it is, rather, a tradition of men. That's one reason of many why the whole viewpoint is so incoherent. I tried to bring it back to Scripture, however, by asking, "where in Scripture does it teach that the Church cannot infallibly interpret it?"

. . . --to illustrate what sola scriptura is really about contra the solo scriptura position more common today that 'Pontificator' was attacking in his own blog.

I understand what the doctrine is. I always have (when I was a Protestant and since then). Pontificator understands it, too, and expressly states that he is critiquing the classic Reformational rule of faith. You misrepresent him if you claim otherwise. Of course you can disagree with him, but that is his self-understanding (and mine as well).

We both simply disagree with you that it is a coherent doctrine. We think the problem lies at the roots, not in corruption or misapplication. I have tried to show at great length why I believe that, and nothing I have seen thus far has disabused me of my opinion. I could be a Buddhist or a Rastafarian and make the same critique, because it is one of internal difficulty.

I think if you re-read Calvin's Institutes on these topics with a full-blown Catholic ecclesiology in mind--that Calvin still had much in common with the Fathers of the early and medieval Church--you should pick up a number of differences between the classically Reformed view of sola scriptura and what is popular today.

I do fully recognize it, and I just did some of that analysis. Where you and I differ is in thinking that Calvin's more sophisticated variant of sola Scriptura resolves its fundamental problems of being entirely non-biblical and self-defeating. Calvin doesn't resolve those difficulties at all, as I think I have shown. If you can show me where my reasoning has faltered, or where I have misrepresented anything in Calvin or the Westminster Confession, etc., I'd be most appreciative.

The very fact that I have already granted the premises that you want me to disprove should show you that there is a disparity between the view you are attacking and the view of sola scriptura that I adhere to as one faithful to the teachings of the magisterial Reformers.

All it shows me is that you have not fully grappled with the implications of your position (nor did Calvin, quite obviously, I think). That's not meant as an insult. It's very common to all of us to not think through everything to the nth degree. I am simply challenging you to do so by my argument (granting all due respect).

Your view that a citation of the Confession by myself constitutes a determination of "something about the Bible" as a tradition is looking at the matter with Roman Catholic glasses on for I never intended for it to be viewed as such.

That was simply a matter of logic. You may not have intended it, but the logic cannot be escaped, because you said, "such-and-such about the Bible is true because the Westminster Confession said so." That was the reasoning chain. I don't see how it can be denied; it was too straightforward and clear of an assertion.

I suppose we all have our own blindnesses to our own tradition and you in turn demonstrated that quite nicely here for your own view.

Great; so we're even! LOL

The Confession does not "determine something about the Bible". The Confession recognizes an inherent quality that the Bible already contains by virtue of its nature and authority as God's Word.

That is easily said, but mere assertion is not proof. You find it self-evident that the Bible is perspicuous and self-interpreting. Others do not (myself included). So you think that when the Westminster Confession states this, it is merely asserting the obvious and self-evident. Again, many deny this. How do we decide who is right?

Failing a clear teaching in the Bible about those aspects (and an explanation of passages which are in the Bible which seem to plainly suggest the contrary), it falls back (in Protestantism) to the arbitrary selection of one human tradition over against another. This gets back to the errors of presuppositionalist thought.

At some point, conversation breaks down because the non-presuppositionalist fails to accept one of the supposedly self-evident "presuppositions". But these very traditions are not based explicitly on the Bible; they are extra-biblical traditions themselves, accepted as quite binding, as it were.

I freely grant that when the actual council happened, James made the decision and it was binding. However, for us today, the result of this decision being included in Scripture shows us a very clear example of Scripture interpreting Scripture.

At the time, no one knew that it was "Scripture interpreting Scripture." It was simply apostolic authority, and the authority of the Church and councils, which was absolutely binding (which, of course, fully supports my position over against yours and Calvin's). That would have been true whether the proceedings "made it into" Scripture or not. No doubt there are volumes of volumes of Paul's or Jesus' teachings which could easily have made into Scripture as well, had the Lord so willed. They were authoritative, though, as they were spoken.

Secondly, of course Scripture interprets Scripture. As a general rule, that is true. It's the basis of all good hermeneutics, exegesis, and systematic theology. I use the method all the time in my apologetics, and have for 23 years; see, e.g., my papers on the biblical evidences for the Holy Trinity and Deity of Christ. These were written in 1982). All I am saying is that it is not an absolute rule, nor is it explicitly stated in Scripture itself (as a doctrinal statement, not merely historical example), nor does it exclude notions of the Church and Tradition and councils authoritatively interpreting Scripture. The Jerusalem Council certainly did that. Nor does Scripture exclude such notions (as this very example demonstrates).

Yes, these are the words of an Apostle in Acts 15, but for continuing generations they are the words of Scripture and they are very plainly indicating that Scripture interprets Scripture. From the very lips of our Lord, this is confirmed also in John 5:46:
John 5:46 "For if you believed Moses, you would believe Me; for he wrote of Me.
This is an excellent example, and I'm delighted that you brought it up, because note that the Bible doesn't immediately tell us what Moses wrote about Jesus; it doesn't identify these passages. Thus, Jesus is referring to oral tradition. We don't have much in the NT which demonstrates that "this teaching from Moses was about Jesus." The same exact dynamic occurs in Luke 24:27, where Jesus was talking to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus:
And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.
Again, the Bible doesn't list these things. That would have to be determined by study and exegesis. And He interprets them! That shows that the words were not all that clear and self-evident. In fact, it was so unclear that virtually no one knew that Jesus was to rise from the dead and that the whole thing was foretold (e.g., Isaiah 53).

So it is yet another instance of authoritative interpretation being necessary, whether it was from Jesus Himself, an apostle, a prophet, a bishop, or a scribe like Ezra. Church authority. Tradition. Not sola Scriptura. In the latter position, those aspects are only given lip service. But they are not binding, because they are always able to be judged.

This, of course, is just the tip of the iceberg for the entire written New Testament speaks and interprets the Old Testament in light of Christ, His coming, and His work. As I said, I'm happy to grant that this reflects the teaching of the Church as well as the Apostles themselves, but let us be fair with one another and admit that after the New Testament was written as Scripture they provide us with the example that the Scripture interprets itself.

I don't deny it. It is the things that sola Scriptura denies (binding Church, Tradition, Councils, apostolic succession, episcopacy and papacy) and its radical circularity and internal incoherence that I am concerned with. You're missing the point of my paper again.

Granting this sole self-evident pillar of sola scriptura does not in and of itself endanger the Roman Catholic view so I am hopeful that we will see agreement here by you as well that at least in these three cases above we see Scripture interpreting itself.

It endangers itself by its unbiblical and logically circular nature. It never did damage our view because it is such a weak and indefensible position.

I didn't claim that "nothing outside of it can be an aid to interpretation". I'm happy to admit that God uses means as an instrument in helping us interpret the Scriptures, but this is not a matter of using a commentary to look at a passage. The question is one of authority. Where does the ultimate authority lie in terms of interpreting the Scripture?

With the Church, of course.

First, I sense you want me to provide a verse that says, "Yep, sola scriptura is right-on target".

Any passage at all which suggests this novel Protestant pillar would be nice, yes. But I suppose that is asking too much: for a Protestant to back up his pillar and rule of faith from Holy Scripture. You almost backed into a direct reply to the central thesis of my actual paper! :-)

I'm not sure that's the way we should be proceeding.

Darn! Close call, eh?

For one thing, while you have stated significant agreement between us on many of the underlying principles of sola scriptura, there are still presuppositions that would get in the way of you viewing verses that I bring to the table in support of my view. In some sense at least we are at an impasse here.

Well, that's why Christians engage in these sorts of dialogues, isn't it? I'm having a great time. It is a good discussion, and I thank you for that.

The whole of Scripture speaks to this matter and the proof for sola scriptura is just as much about how God has revealed Himself to men and His Church as it is about the particular details he has revealed to us in Scripture.

I see God revealing in His Scripture an authoritative role for the Church, Tradition, Councils, apostolic succession, bishops, and a papacy (while sola Scriptura is never asserted at all). Those things are not only not excluded, they are positively required by Scripture.

But, my question to you is this...given that you have bought into the claims of the Roman Catholic Magisterium on this, what does it matter what I bring to the table for as a faithful Roman Catholic you must reject it out of hand anyway.

This is wrongheaded and unhelpful in a number of ways:

1. It is completely irrelevant what I believe, as the present topic is a critique of the internal incoherence of the Protestant position on the rule of faith.

2. What you state about me applies equally to you, so it is a non sequitur. You are no more likely to accept Catholic distinctives than I am to accept Protestant distinctives.

3. I always allow a theoretical possibility that I can be convinced of another position. The proof of that lies in my own history: I once was Protestant and converted to my present beliefs by means precisely of study and dialogue (ecumenical discussions in my own home).

4. Does this mean that people shouldn't talk about differences where they will -- in all likelihood -- not come to agreement? Folks can still learn and understand more through talking, and come to respect opponents, while not agreeing with them in every particular. They may learn that they are closer together than they previously thought. I think that about many aspects of Reformed-Catholic differences.

5. This subject happens to be a rather large difference, but you are learning that we have a very high view of Scripture, as you do, and we are learning that caricatures of sola Scriptura are not helpful and that there is a place for Tradition and Councils and Churches in your thought.

6. I find it to be a very constructive discussion myself, so I don't see how it is helpful to point out that I will never accept something because I am a Catholic, or because my Church won't allow me, etc., when it is largely the same for you in your side. Your comrades exclude us far more from the circle of Christianity than we exclude you, as you know full well.
In other words, you have absolutely no objective basis to evaluate sola scriptura outside of the similar claim of the Roman Catholic Magisterium to ultimate authority.

That is simply untrue. I can examine it on its own merits, just as any other belief or tenet is examined. I have cited your sources for why you believe it, and called for biblical support, since you ostensibly ground all your beliefs in Holy Scripture (that's one of the cherished Protestant myths, anyway). I think you repeatedly want to switch the topic over to Catholic authority (as you are doing again here) because you sense down deep that your position is indeed weighed down by many serious internal difficulties which you are hard-pressed to even explain, let alone defend.

You can indeed subjectively evaluate the claims of Protestants regarding Scripture but at the end of the day you must submit these claims to Rome.

Not at all. "Rome" has only authoritatively announced on about 6-8 Bible passages. Of course I have boundaries of orthodoxy, outside of which my theology may not go, but so do you, so it is another non sequitur, which doesn't solve your problem to the slightest degree. it was a clever attempt at diversion and evasion, though. :-)

And on what basis? Because the Magisterium tells you so. The circular argument regarding ultimate authority returns home where it belongs--to those who would claim ultimate authority for their position.

I can defend every jot and tittle of my position. I'm interested at the moment of seeing you defend yours, or concede the difficulty (either of yourself personally or of the system you adhere to).

In contrast, the Protestant recognizes the ultimate authority of God's Word and submits to it because it is God's Word spoken to us through the Holy Spirit, both individually and corporately.

Who doesn't? Why pretend that only Protestants believe this? Last time I checked, all Christians did, so it is silly to imply that only some do. It's like saying, "scientists from the state of Nebraska recognize uniformitarianism, and the key role of replicability and empirical observation as a fundamental tenet of science."

How do we as Protestants know this? Because God's Word tells us so.

Good for you. Delighted to hear it. I love it when people respect the Bible.

You have already admitted to the basic premises of this viewpoint (see your "wholehearted" agreement to points 1-9 above)--premises which are thoroughly biblical--and I would submit to you that the ultimate reason why you do not accept it . . .

Huh? You just said I accepted it, but now I don't? Your confusion here is the usual Protestant equation of sola Scriptura with respect for the full authority and infallibility and inspiration of the Bible. The two are NOT the same. And it is rather silly to keep insinuating that they are.

. . . is simply because you have already placed your faith in the Roman Catholic Magisterium and not because of any substantial reason you might present to deny the viewpoint.

Assuming this is true (and it is only partially at best), your burden is still to show me and everyone reading this how my reasoning went awry. All I've done is examine your view. I haven't cited popes and councils. I could have been an atheist or a Sufi and made this exact same argument. it has nothing directly to do with being a Catholic. That certainly colors my analysis, but it is not essential to it.

I can hear you saying (or typing) now that such considerations are not on topic, that we must continue to discuss sola scriptura independent of the ultimate truth claims of Rome.

Bingo. No pun intended . . .

However, given that both claims are ultimate--to talk of one is to speak of the other. Your claim that the Church is as infallible as Scripture is just as much a part of the discussion about the veracity of sola scriptura as anything else you have brought up.

In a sense, to talk about one is to talk about the other. But there are also other options. Anglicanism is a sort of Via Media. Orthodoxy is also a distinct conception of authority. Secondly, it is still necessary to stick to one problem at a time if one is to have a constructive, fruitful conversation, and in order to avoid the common evasive technique of "your dad's uglier than my dad." Thirdly, Church infallibility is limited to certain specified conditions. It is not biblical inspiration. It's a negative guarantee against error.

Secondly, the classic Reformed expression of sola scriptura does not absurdly claim that "Scripture is totally clear and must interpret itself" in all things. Rather, the viewpoint of the Reformed is as follows:
All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them. (Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 1, paragraph 7)
Good. I understand this, and I agree that Scripture is clear in the main. I have always found it to be so in all my research. The problem, however, continues to be: what is the ultimate authority? Scripture must be interpreted, whether it is by a layman, a Bible scholar, a Council, bishops, or a pope. There is no avoiding this. The Catholic position allows "the buck to stop" somewhere. The Protestant position does not and cannot do that, it seems to me.

The proof texts provided with the Confession make the point quite clear (see Psalms 119:105, 130; Deut. 29:29; 30:10-14; Acts 17:11).

As usual, these "proof texts" do not prove sola Scriptura as a rule of faith and a system of authority. They don't come anywhere close. The Bible is a lamp and light and gives understanding. Of course. No one denies that. Deuteronomy 29:29 and 30:10-14 need to be understood in light of other passages where the scribes and Levites were necessary to interpret the Law to the Israelites. It also needs to be remembered that the Old Testament Jews (and the later mainstream Pharisaical Judaism) believed in an authoritative oral Tradition which was delivered to Moses on Mt. Sinai at the same time he received the written law. The OT Jews did not believe in sola Scriptura. Acts 17:11 shows that all true beliefs must be in line with the Bible, but it doesn't necessarily indicate the system of sola Scriptura, because we deny that and we believe, like you, that our beliefs cannot contradict the biblical data.

Of course the decree of the Jerusalem Council was binding. We do not argue with such things. Calvin has quite clearly admitted the authority of councils and the Westminster Confession does as well (see Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 31, especially paragraphs 1-3).

But both deny that such councils are binding, as I have shown.

But, please demonstrate for me what new teaching the Council proposed apart from Scripture. James and the other Apostles merely recognized what was already a part of Scripture and how to apply it in their particular situation.

Precisely. That's what I am saying: authoritative interpretation is necessary, and it is binding. Protestants can accept that only to a point; then dissent must be allowed on the basis of its own principles of private judgment and sola Scriptura.

If the entire law can be summed up in "love your neighbor as yourself", then there is nothing new that the Church did in telling the Gentiles to have regard for the scruples of their Jewish brothers in the Church. No one is denying the role of the Holy Spirit in such a council and to say that the Reformed do so is clearly not in accordance with our argument for sola scriptura.

All right then. So if the Jerusalem Council was so guided, then (since it serves as an example of Church government to us), which other councils were so guided, and therefore binding? You tell me, since you claim that you accept this principle.

The presence of the Holy Spirit at such councils and working through the bishops of the Church does not guarantee infallibility for the councils or the Church.

If the Holy Spirit guiding a meeting doesn't guarantee freedom from error, then there can be no guarantee whatsoever, and we are all following arbitrary schemas, never sure if they are true or not. You either think this council was free from error or not. If you do, then this shows us that it is possible, because it happened at least once. If it happened once, I see no reason to deny that it can happen again, many times. If it didn't happen at all, then the very notion of a binding council is undermined, because it is entirely fallible, and thus of little worth for truth-seekers in matters of Christian doctrine and theology. Secondly, you believe that the Holy Spirit guided quite fallible, limited, sinful men to write an inspired ("God-breathed") Scripture, yet you deny that God the Holy Spirit is able to grant the gift of infallibility, which is far lesser a gift than inspiration. Curious . . .

This is born out not only in Scripture but also in the history of the Church. The councils and the Church are authoritative inasmuch as they agree with the truth of Scripture.

Who determines whether they agree or not, and why should its / his opinion be deemed any more authoritative than the council that it / he judges?

I have argued as much elsewhere and if you want to see the difference between the classic Reformed view and the solo scriptura view peruse the mini-discussion I had with James White concerning the authority of Chalcedon (mini, because it took place within a conversation about Congar and his writing on my blog).

I agree with this distinction, and have written about it in my first book (p. 4). But I don't agree that this distinction alone can resolve your internal difficulties.

I accept the authority of such councils as well as those teachers who are over me in the Church, but I do so only so far as they agree with Scripture for it is Scripture that has ultimate authority.

I don't know what that means in a practical sense until you can explain to me the process by which one determines who / what agrees with Scripture, and why this method is inherently more trustworthy and dependable and worthy of allegiance than the councils themselves.

Thanks for the discussion. I enjoyed it.