Monday, May 17, 2004

Christian Filmmaker's Creed

By Dave Armstrong (5-17-04)

I was asked to write this by a friend and filmmaker, Dr. Stanley Williams, for use in his work (his stated purposes and outlook, etc.). It is always an interesting discussion to go over the relationship of Christianity to art, and responsibilities of Christians in the arts in presenting their material in a fashion consistent with their Christian beliefs and ideals:


The primary goal of the Christian filmmaker is to promulgate -- with all the artistic means at his disposal -- truth, from a broad-based, biblically grounded Christian perspective, or worldview (Philippians 4:8). Positively, this entails a presuppositional adherence to those theological doctrines agreed-upon by virtually all Christians, formulated classically in the Nicene Creed.

In a negative sense, the Christian filmmaker should always seek to avoid the cinematic glorification, gratuitous use, or "normative portrayal" of (from a broad Christian view) morally and theologically objectionable ideas or acts (e.g., clear violations of the Ten Commandments, nihilism, unnecessarily explicit sexuality, prejudice and bigotry, hedonism,
narcissism, ethnocentrism, etc.).

Such morally or theologically "objectionable" elements will ordinarily be present in a Christian film, in the antagonists and to some extent in the protagonists (as all human beings are fallen and flawed, and legitimate drama demands this), but in such a way that they are ultimately contrasted against the backdrop of a Christian ethos or framework. They are not, therefore, in the Christian filmmaker's work, sanctioned or condoned in any way, shape, or form, and furthermore, the negative results flowing from sin are made manifest in some fashion in the script (perhaps only at the end of the movie, but obviously so, in any event).

In other words, typically non-Christian traits must be leading characteristics of the "bad guys" and shown (in the final analysis) in their true, repulsive colors, as both sinful and harmful to the individual and others. Many "secular" films indeed exhibit this aspect in many ways, some quite effectively and profoundly, but the Christian film makes the true nature of reality, beauty and love, the benefits of grace and discipleship, and the consequences of sin its primary goal, whether this is portrayed implicitly or explicitly (truth can be set forth in many different ways, depending on the filmmaker's purpose and intended target audience).

Even a fantasy world ought to contain (or at least not blatantly contradict) a transcendental God (i.e., a theistic universe), as in, e.g., the fantasies of C.S. Lewis, because God is the root and ground of all reality (Colossians 2:3; Acts 17:27-28). Adultery or murder would, therefore, be just as evil in a fantasy-world as in a cinematic presentation of a "real world," just as a parable of Jesus does not and cannot contain a moral falsehood, even though it is purely fictional.

Some popular movies (though usually not totally devoid of moral or artistic merit, by any means) in effect glorify (biblically forbidden) white magic, or sorcery, and present it as normative to everyday reality, whereas the Christian movie (by nature) could not do this, and would ultimately ground beneficent supernatural or (to use a better word) miraculous acts in the divine will and power; in God, as opposed to (famously) a so-called "force." Theism need not always be explicit in a film, but the overall worldview of a "Christian film" must be consistent with a biblical, Christian understanding of reality in all its aspects.

The presentation of historical events and figures -- particularly Christian or biblical persons and history -- poses peculiarly difficult and complex problems of historical accuracy, insofar as that can be achieved, given the usual and inevitable bias of individuals. At the very least, the Christian filmmaker must avoid all tendentious or ideological distortions of the known, widely-accepted facts of history. Historical fiction is valid and plausible insofar as it dramatically builds upon more-or-less accepted facts, so that it doesn't distort (a half-truth being almost as bad as a plain lie) essential characteristics of persons and events.

Beyond that, the Christian film cannot present as truth doctrines or viewpoints which are widely rejected among Christians. An example of such distortion would be the portrayal of (what Christians know as) the Two Natures of Christ (or, Hypostatic Union), in The Last Temptation of Christ. In an erroneous (even if well-intended) attempt to "humanize" Jesus, to help us to better "relate" to Him (according to the director's and screenwriter's own stated goals), our Lord, the incarnate God, is shown to possess certain Nestorian-like traits such as doubt or inner turmoil, and enticement towards sin, which are blatantly contrary to the orthodox Christology which is accepted by all three major branches of Christianity (developed in its final form at the Council of Chalcedon in 451).

Truth has an inherent power, and is able to be ascertained by any individual who seeks it, by the grace of God (Romans 1:18-20, 2:13-16). It can, and should, therefore, affect viewers of well-made,
artistically meritorious Christian films in a special and profound way. The Christian film might choose to emphasize a particular aspect of truth (aesthetic, metaphysical, scientific, moral, relational, emotional, spiritual, etc.), utilizing a full and free artistic and technically proficient expression, yet the goal is to always base the dramatic vision within a truly Christian framework and worldview, so that the viewer can walk away with a better grasp of one or more aspects of the truths of Christianity and the gospel or (more generally) a theistic universe, than he or she possessed before having watched the film.

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.

Tuesday, May 04, 2004

Why Sola Scriptura is Self-Defeating and False if it Isn't in the Bible (vs. Kevin Johnson)

By Dave Armstrong (5-4-04)

I've seen many Protestants deny the Catholic counter-reply that if sola Scriptura isn't taught in the Bible, it is a self-defeating belief, and therefore untrue. It certainly is self-defeating if in fact it can't be found in the Bible (as I maintain). The inexorable, unarguable reasoning works as follows:

1. Sola Scriptura (SS) is the view that the Scripture is the final authority and only infallible one in the Christian life, higher than councils and Tradition and the Church, none of which are infallible (this is what is known as the formal sufficiency of Scripture as a rule of faith; Catholics deny this), and that every true Christian doctrine is found in Scripture, either implicitly or explicitly (material sufficiency of Scripture, which Catholics agree with).

2. If SS can be found taught in Scripture (and if Scripture teaches what sola Scriptura denies: that neither Tradition nor Church possess binding, infallible authority, as Scripture does), then it is not only self-consistent, but a true and a binding belief (just like anything else taught in inspired, infallible Scripture: God's revelation).

3. But SS cannot be found in Scripture (Protestants have not succeeded in showing the contrary, that it is there), and Scripture indeed teaches that Tradition and the Church possess binding, infallible authority.

4. If SS is not in Scripture then it is (by definition and nature) an "extra-biblical" tradition and a mere tradition of men. SS obviously cannot be the rule of faith, if what it entails is the Bible being the sole infallible and ultimate rule of faith, because that means that whatever is included in the Christian faith (let alone the rule of faith) is found in Scripture (since it IS the rule of faith, according to SS).

5. But SS is not in the Bible; thus it cannot possibly be a guide as to the status of the Bible itself with regard to authority and its relation to Church and Tradition. It is merely one of many "traditions of men" that Protestants (again, quite inconsistently) detest when it comes to Catholic distinctives which they claim are "unbiblical" and "extrabiblical."

6. SS itself condemns extra-biblical traditions, and Protestants condemn mere traditions of men. These cannot be binding and obligatory upon believers.

7. Therefore, SS cannot be true by its own principles (IF it isn't in the Bible itself)! It is self-defeating (and nothing self-defeating can be true). Nor can it be true by ostensible Protestant principles. And it cannot be binding because all binding principles under the Protestant system must be found in Scripture itself.

8. If it's not in the Bible (or at the very least, clearly deducible from it), it can't be part of the Christian faith, and it obviously can't speak to whether the Bible is the sole rule of faith, because (not being in the Bible) that would mean that a non-biblical tradition has more authority than the Bible itself -- the very thing which the principle itself denies. So it is self-defeating and logical nonsense.

9. Of course, the canon of Scripture (quite similarly to this Protestant conundrum) is another non-biblical doctrine depending on Tradition and Church authority, which is also a huge epistemological difficulty for Protestants, but another issue.

10. Ergo, SS can not only not be true, but it cannot be binding either, and whatever is not binding cannot be a rule of faith (and untruths obviously cannot be binding upon Christian believers, as God's will).

11. Moreover, if SS is not the Protestant rule of faith, then they must find another coherent, true rule, and that necessarily, inevitably falls back upon some sort of authoritative Tradition and/or Church authority, thus putting them on the same exact epistemological and ecclesiological plane as Orthodox and Catholics and (well, in theory, anyway) Anglicans, who all appeal to an authoritative Tradition in their belief-structure and epistemology.

12. Which Tradition and which Church, then, shall a Protestant choose (SS having failed and having been shown to be a false principle)? Well, Orthodoxy or Catholicism. Then we enter into the controversy as to which is more worthy of allegiance.

But I am far less concerned with Orthodoxy than I am with Protestantism. I feel that we ought to stress our commonality with the Orthodox, rather than wrangle with them, which is why I removed almost all of my Internet papers on Orthodoxy (though I plan to probably compile them into a book).

Meanwhile, the Protestant rule of faith is thoroughly incoherent, inconsistent, unbiblical, unhistorical (it was never held to any appreciable extent till the 16th century), and unworkable in practice.

Let Protestants keep trying in vain to find this teaching in Holy Scripture. I've yet to see that, and I've written more about this issue than any other in my apologetic endeavors. If it isn't there, it either 1) can no longer be held, or 2) must be radically modified in definition. And if #2 is the case, I fail to see how it can even continue being what it is. If it incorporates tradition within its parameters as binding and obligatory, and/or infallible, it ceases to be what it is; it loses its very nature and essence.

Kevin Johnson (words in blue), an articulate Reformed Protestant, wrote in a comment in a previous thread:

I think perhaps you Roman Catholic guys have been shell-shocked by fundamentalist Protestants for a long time.

"Shell-shocked"? LOL I'm still waiting for those guys to get off a shot that hits anywhere near us! LOL The problem ain't being shell-shocked, it is either falling asleep or dying laughing at the sheer stupidity and goofiness of their claims, such as Eric Svendsen claiming that we raise Mary to the level of the Holy Trinity, or James White creating an absolute dichotomy between sacraments and grace, which would exclude St. Augustine and Martin Luther from the Body of Christ.

. . . so long that perhaps it is difficult to even conceive of a Protestant actually having credible arguments for what they believe.

I have no problem conceiving that at all. Usually that is the case (at least above the level of premises). I simply deny that this is one instance where a coherent case can be made. It is not only built upon false premises; it is self-defeating, which renders it unworthy of belief. And I am referring to all the most sophisticated versions of sola Scriptura, not the fundamentalist extreme Bible-Only or SOLO Scriptura stuff.

A more balanced view would recognize that men like Calvin and Luther made their impact because while they may not have always been right they were certainly formidable opponents to the Catholic clergy of their day and their arguments did make sense to at least some of the world they lived in.

Of course, but that is another issue. Here we are discussing the principles of authority that they introduced, which were contrary to the received Tradition.

. . . the argument for sola scriptura is not a matter of proof-texting different verses,

Whatever you call recourse to biblical argument and data, it is absolutely necessary in this case, by the very nature of the beast, as shown above.

rather it is a recognition of the authority inherent in the Word of God and a realizing that the whole text of Scripture must be taken into account on the matter.

Catholics don't disagree with that, but it doesn't settle the issues of whether 1) SS is true, and 2) whether it is in fact self-defeating. That question has to be dealt with of its own accord; again, because of the specific nature of the thing being discussed, which necessarily involves making an argument from the Bible itself. The Protestant task remains to prove the doctrine from Scripture, and they have not done so. If you say it is deduced, then we can come back and say that a binding Tradition and Church is taught explicitly in Scripture (both notions being fatal to sola Scriptura).

Fundamental interpretive issues like these should be discussed prior to proof-texting your way in or out of sola scriptura.

Sure, but this doesn't resolve the issue at hand, at all. Scripture is authoritative. It has inherent authority. All of it must be taken into account. All of these things are wholeheartedly accepted by Catholics. But your 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.

If it can't be found, it collapses, because sola Scriptura would then be an unbiblical tradition of men, which is contrary to its very definition and nature. Anyone can see this, if they can step aside from partisan concerns for the moment, and look at it purely in terms of the logical factors involved.

Otherwise, you have your verses and tradition and I have mine.

That's what the situation reduces to at length, anyway. Sola Scriptura is simply an entrenched, arbitrary, obligatory Protestant Tradition. But it makes no sense because it can't be proven from the Bible -- not even indirectly -- and much in the Bible contradicts it.

In a comment on the Pontificator's [Fr. Al Kimel's] blog, Kevin offered the usual rejoinder, that his opponents (in this instance, an Anglican priest) do not understand sola Scriptura and private judgment:

Your critique may indeed speak loudly to the more extreme modern elements of Protestantism that has divorced itself from a fuller understanding of the original Reformation vision. However, your comments do no damage to the doctrine of sola scriptura as it was framed by Calvin and several of the historic Reformed Confessions . . .

Then he goes on to state the outlines of sola Scriptura:

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…”

Thus, we have a tradition (the Westminster Confession) determining something about the Bible, in the very act of defining the notion that nothing outside the Scripture can do so. The blindness to one's own "philosophy" or "tradition" here fits in nicely with sola Scriptura. But where in Scripture does it teach that the Church cannot infallibly interpret it (or for that matter, where does it deny that Tradition and the Church can determine the canon: which books are in the Bible in the first place?).

Second, the Bible does belong to an obvious genre–it is the Word of God and uniquely so–as such it has a self-attesting authority as His Word and its revelatory nature dictates that it alone is the guide as to how it should be interpreted.

No one denies that the Bible is unique. But it doesn't follow from that that nothing outside of it can be an aid to interpretation. In fact, this is denied. To give two examples from the Old Testament itself:

1) Ezra 7:6,10: Ezra, a priest and scribe, studied the Jewish law and taught it to Israel, and his authority was binding, under pain of imprisonment, banishment, loss
of goods, and even death (7:25-26).

2) Nehemiah 8:1-8: Ezra reads the law of Moses to the people in Jerusalem (8:3). In 8:7 we find thirteen Levites who assisted Ezra, and "who helped the people to understand the law." Much earlier, we find Levites exercising the same function (2 Chronicles 17:8-9). In Nehemiah 8:8: ". . . they read from the book, from the law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading." The New Testament is no different:

And behold, an Ethiopian, a eunuch . . . seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah . . . So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and asked, "Do you understand what you are reading?" And he said, "How can I, unless some one guides me?" (Acts 8:27-28, 30-31)

In fact, proper Reformed hermeneutics would demand that it is the guide by which all things are to be interpreted and understood.

Exactly; so this "all" would include sola Scriptura itself, the very rule of faith for the Protestant. You keep putting deeper into a rut and a pit. First, Scripture is totally clear and must interpret itself. Now it must be the source of understanding everything! So if Scripture is so clear and self-interpreting, where is sola scriptura clearly, self-evidently taught in it (as it must be)?

Because the Bible is God’s Word to men, it logically follows that not only does it mean something for us but the Scriptures also are clear to us–can anyone doubt that God the Father intended to place in His children’s hands a message that was comprehensible?;

That doesn't logically follow, but I agree that it is plausible. Even so, it doesn't follow (logically or as a practical matter) that the comprehensibility of the Scripture has to flow only from itself and without the aid of Church and Tradition. These things not only do not follow; the contrary is explicitly taught in Scripture.

The Jerusalem Council issued a binding decree and interpretation of Scripture on the matters of contraception and application of the Mosaic law in the New Covenant. The Bible even says that those at the Council were specially guided by the Holy Spirit:

Acts 15:28-29: For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from unchastity.

In the next chapter, we read that Paul, Timothy, and Silas were traveling around "through the cities," and Scripture says that "they delivered to them for observance the decisions which had been reached by the apostles and elders who were at Jerusalem" (Acts 16:4). This is Church authority. They simply proclaimed the decree as true and binding -- with the sanction of the Holy Spirit Himself!

Thus we see in the Bible an instance of the gift of infallibility that the Catholic Church claims for itself when it assembles in a council. This is neither sola Scriptura nor Luther's "Bible above popes and councils" revolutionary epistemological proclamation at the Diet of Worms in 1521. Not at all . . . but it is awfully biblical!

Key to understanding the limited role of tradition in relation to interpreting the Scriptures is the fact that while both men and the Church are (you will forgive I hope these references to classic Reformed systematic theology) justified, they are not completely sanctified. Men can and do err, they sin and we all look to Christ for forgiveness daily. The same is true for the Church. The Scriptures speak of ‘both/and’–we are clothed with Christ, yet we die to sin daily. Not until the eschaton are we going to be as we should. That being the case, offering a person an infallible role for the apostles or their hearers (as you posit here), the Church, or tradition is extremely suspect.

This doesn't follow, either, by the example of the Jerusalem Council. Those decrees were binding and understood as such by Paul, who went out and proclaimed them. It was an instance of an infallible Church giving authoritative pronouncement on biblical teachings. The same thing held for utterances of the prophets and (I should think) the apostles, when they went out and preached the gospel.

Peter in Acts 2, in his sermon in the Upper Room, and in other recorded sermons, gave an authoritative New Covenant interpretation of salvation history. It was binding before it became "inscripturated," because it was from an apostle. The writers of Scripture itself were sinners just like the rest of us (some, like David, even murderers and adulterers). But somehow God used those sinners to write an infallible, inspired Bible.

Papal and Church infallibility is a lesser gift than what Protestants already believed with regard to the Bible. If God can use sinners to write an inspired Bible, certainly He can use sinful men to proclaim infallible teachings in Tradition, as that is merely a protection from error, not a positive quality of inspiration.

Some have argued that the Church and her traditions have been guarded and guided by the Holy Spirit–and in general I agree. However, why can we not say the same for Word of the Husband (being Christ) that we do for His Bride, the Church?

I agree. That is not our problem. But you have a huge problem because you deny the proper role for the Church and Tradition that Scripture gives them. You want to follow, rather, the watered-down version of Church and Tradition that you received from Luther and Calvin. So you lessen the status of biblical and apostolic tradition based on arbitrary traditions of men.

Are we somehow going to argue that when God speaks, His words are unintelligible to those through whom the Spirit has given new life and written these very words upon their hearts?

That is not required in the Catholic position. It is not so much a denial that Scripture is clear in the main, as it is a protest against the anti-traditional, anti-biblical exclusion of Church and Tradition from the sphere of binding authority. Nor does it rule out the role of the Church in interpretation.

While I am the first to downplay the role of the individual in salvation due to the abuses in Protestantism especially in our day, we must admit the role of the Holy Spirit in the lives of individual believers. If the Word is truly written on our hearts, does it not follow that we understand what that word is by the work of the Spirit?

We have no problem with that. All we are saying is that if the Holy Spirit can so guide individuals, then He can guide His Church as well (and the Bible portrays this state of affairs as being the case in actuality).

After all this, however, let me say that I do believe the Bible outlines a teaching office for the Church, that it is important both now and historically, and that our interpretation of Scripture should take into account the witness of our Fathers. However, the witness of the Fathers must be faithful to the Word of God, not vice versa.

Of course. We believe that it is. It takes faith to believe that. The problem you and Protestants have is to explain how an individual can trump a received Tradition and the authority of the Church. If you discount the Church's binding authority because men are sinners, then you obviously have to discount every individual's interpretation, as each person is a sinner, too!

But you don't do that. You give the authority ultimately to the individual to decide, by the illumination of the Holy Spirit, what is true and what isn't, while you deny it to the Church. This makes no sense. And it is not biblical teaching (which is that there is a binding, authoritative [infallible] Tradition passed down and preserved in the Church).

The Church had binding authority in the Jerusalem Council. At what point did it lose this? As soon as the last apostle died (John?), then the Church lost its authority to bind men to interpretations and laws; to "bind and to loose"? That makes no sense, and no such notion can be found in Scripture itself. There is no indication that this profound authority would later be lessened and that the Bible would be the sole infallible rule of faith. That had to wait till Martin Luther, 15 centuries later.

It's passing strange that a group which claims to be so concentrated on the Bible and opposed to traditions of men, would adopt a principle and rule of faith taken straight from a new, novel "tradition of man" (Luther), which says things about the Bible that the same Bible never teaches, and indeed, often directly opposes. There is no end to the logical and practical and unbiblical absurdities of this position.

But (again), I oppose sola Scriptura not at all because it is "difficult [for me] to even conceive of a Protestant actually having credible arguments for what they believe," but because of the intrinsic weakness of this particular position. It fails because it cannot stand up to biblical and logical and historic Christian scrutiny, not because we are so reflexively prejudiced against it, or because we are (supposedly) opposing only caricatures of the position. If you disagree with that, then please refute the reasoning above. I'm all for observing you giving "credible arguments for what you believe." Please do so; you are welcomed, and positively encouraged to make such an argument on my blog.

I will now reply to Kevin's comments on the Pontificator's blog. The latter made a reply of his own which (while brief) is well worth reprinting:

I’m afraid that I do not see how classical Reformation hermeneutics in any way avoids the problem posed by Newman on private judgment. You invoke the Westminster Confession for support, but this confession exemplifies the kind of private judgment that Newman decries:

(1) It rejects the infallibility of councils and denies their hermeneutical role as a “rule of faith” (XXXI.4).

(2) It asserts double predestination (III), which ecumenical Christianity rejects as heretical (Council of Orange).

(3) It rejects the veneration of images (XX.1), a practice that is explicitly commended and protected by the Seventh General Ecumenical Council.

(4) It asserts an understanding of Eucharist that would is rejected by both Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Lutheranism (XXIX).

The list could be expanded, but I’m sure you get my point. The Reformed faith as explicated by Westminster is, by ecumenical standards, idiosyncratic and heretical. But of course the Reformed are convinced that it faithfully explicates the written Word of God.

(Comment by Pontificator — 4/30/2004)
Now on to Kevin's later comments:

The Westminster Confession was not cited as support for sola scriptura. The relevant portions quoted were given as an example of classic Reformation theology on the subject to help differentiate between the doctrine as it is posed in line with the original intent of the Reformation as opposed to today’s more modern version of the doctrine.

Neither Pontificator's critique of sola Scriptura nor my own (nor Newman's, for that matter), depend on caricaturing it in order to fight straw men (per your reply and Tim Enloe's). The critiques apply to original, bona fide, Reformation doctrine; it goes to the roots. No one who is reading Pontificator's material lately can doubt that he is raising serious questions about original premises.

If you disagree, then you must demonstrate how either he or I are distorting the original Reformation conception of sola Scriptura, not merely assert it. For my part, ever since 1991 I have been operating with a definition of sola Scriptura from impeccable (mostly Reformed) sources such as R.C. Sproul, Charles Hodge, G.C. Berkouwer, and Bernard Ramm.

If you don't like those, then there is an easy solution: please provide a definition of sola Scriptura yourself, and I will be happy to show that it suffers from just as many shortcomings and errors as the one I have been using. You can't go on endlessly claiming your opponent is operating on a faulty definition, without actually arguing the matter at hand. At least not on my blog! LOL

That being said, I would have preferred to see interaction with what I wrote rather than side-stepping the issues and leaving a criticism of the Confession.

Amen! And I desire the same for what I wrote, too.

I confess I need to read more of Newman since it seems that much of popular Catholic apologetics these days is built off of his works–but perhaps you can tell me what he thinks of the historical fact that the Councils themselves contradict each other in certain instances–an odd thing to happen for an infallible tradition. I’m not sure his view is as realistic as some would like to admit.

Having criticized the Pontificator for "side-stepping the issues," you proceed to do a little fancy footwork yourself, and try to switch the discussion over to alleged contradictions of councils, rather than the internal incoherence and inconsistency of sola Scriptura. I must admit that I saw more than a little humor in that irony.

. . . Again, as I have stated, the Westminster Confession was mentioned merely to point out the original doctrine of sola scriptura to those who seem content to attack a more modern caricature of it.

You need to clarify. Since I am now interacting with you, please demonstrate where anything I have written in criticism of SS would not apply to the version of it held by the Westminster divines. Again, I maintain that all versions of SS fall prey to internal incoherence and self-defeating factors, no matter how sophisticated; no matter how "impeccably Reformed" and so forth. Thank you.

But the same dilemma exists for the Magisterium. On what basis, other than the claim of the Church, do we accept the Magisterium as the authority in interpreting the Scriptures?

Nice try at switching the topic again. Which Tradition one accepts is a completely distinct and separate question from the question of whether sola Scriptura can stand up to logical, biblical, and historical scrutiny. That is the current question. If you wish to concede that you are unable to defend sola scriptura, from the Bible or otherwise, feel free to do so, then we can move on. But I won't change horses in mid-stream when there is a legitimate, worthwhile, highly-important problem to be dealt with in the Protestant rule of faith.

This question is about the final appeal of authority.

That's right. But when the claim is made that one position is self-defeating or otherwise quite weak in its construction, then that has to be dealt with first, before moving onto much wider discussions of choosing an authoritative tradition.

The Word comes from God–it’s authority is just as self-evident as God’s ultimate authority as God and the Church has duly recognized this authority over the centuries no matter what communion you belong to.

Of course. No one is denying that.

No one questions the authority of the words of the President of the United States when he speaks and why we think we can question the authority of the Word of God when He has clearly spoken is beyond me.

Again, I have no idea whom you think is doing that. Questioning sola Scriptura is not the same as questioning Holy Scripture. Please read this sentence five times, till it sinks in.

I think perhaps many Catholics are used to arguing with fundamentalist anti-Catholics who blame everything on Rome.

Their mentality is easy to understand, and they don't interest me because they have nothing of substance to offer. Presently, I am dealing with a sophisticated Reformed Christian (you) who wishes to keep switching the topic to Rome whenever the going gets rough. I hope we can get beyond that, and that you will be willing to truly examine your own viewpoint, and defend it if you think you can, without ever mentioning the word "Rome"! I know you can do it if you really put your mind to it . . .

[passing over further attempts to move the discussion over the Rome's pre-Reformation culpability]

Monday, May 03, 2004

Protest Against Anti-Protestantism

By Dave Armstrong (5-3-04)

I believe that anti-Protestantism or anti-evangelicalism (like anti-Catholicism) is also a vast and disturbing social problem, coming largely from the left, the media, academia, and the entertainment industry, and including also the usual prevalent bias against "Southern conservative white guys" who are invariably stereotyped as troglodyte anti-intellectual fundamentalists -- the portrayal of the Scopes Trial, e.g., is a quintessential instance of this (and this itself is part of the common Northern bigotry against the South: and I say this as a Michigander, though one of my grandfathers was born in Alabama).

As to the relative prevalence of both, I don't have any particular strong opinion, nor do I think it matters much. The important thing is for conscientious Christians to condemn both.

That said, I would note that the official Catholic position is to acknowledge Protestants as Christian brothers, whereas many Protestant groups either are officially anti-Catholic or contain within themselves a strong legacy of anti-Catholicism which is then passed down almost unconsciously.

Therefore, I would suspect (though I don't assert) that anti-Catholicism is the more prevalent of the two, simply because it is fed from an important and influential sub-stream of Protestantism as well as from the secular and leftist worlds, which would seem to me to despise both of our camps alike.

Individuals, of course, might fall short of properly informed and charitable attitudes, just as they do concerning ethics or theology, generally-speaking. The difference with the Catholic, though, is that if he rails about Protestants being non-Christians, he is going against the express teaching of Vatican II, which is binding on all Catholics, whereas when Protestants do the reverse, they are in a quite respectable Protestant tradition which can easily be traced right to Luther and Calvin themselves.

So they are arguably in the mainstream of their tradition, whereas Catholics must violate their actual tradition to do the same thing. For example, Feeneyites may claim Protestants aren't Christians, but they have been condemned by the Church itself as an erroneous fringe group.

I suppose this is enough to arouse ire against me, but again, I reiterate that I think anti-Protestantism is an extremely serious social problem and acceptable prejudice as well. If anti-Catholicism is a greater problem, it is only because it is so often generated by fellow Christians and not simply secularists who are nominal concerning, or outside any brand of Christianity whatsoever.

I should clarify that secular anti-Catholicism and anti-Protestantism both are more in the nature of a "sociological derision" -- we are opposed because of our stands on traditional morality or because of political conservatism, or (above all) opposition to abortion and the Sexual Revolution, homosexuality and so forth.

The secularist doesn't care enough about doctrine for that to be any issue for them. They would acknowledge both camps as Christian: they simply don't like us (we're "lousy citizens" who aren't playing the game the way it should be played). It is all social issues for them and intolerance for the counter-cultural aspects of any form of solid, robust, life- and culture-transforming

One should note the different definition, then. My standard use and definition of "anti-Catholic" and "anti-Protestant" both, is the mistaken and self-defeating view that those groups are not Christians. The Protestant anti-Catholic may also despise some sociological or non-theological aspects of Catholicism, but that does not enter into my own use of the term, as I have stated many

The secularist, on the other hand, is usually not concerned with theological categories or content. It is a more pure prejudice, based on mere disagreement and dislike, because many Christians are not good social liberals and cause too many problems and inconveniences.

At least the educated anti-Catholic Protestant usually has some principles of theology that he thinks (either rightly or oftentimes wrongly) that the Catholic Church opposes. They are right when they say we oppose sola fide and sola Scriptura; wrong when they claim that we oppose sola gratia. It is just as wrong, and it is just as wicked, but at least they think they are upholding some better good (true theology and the following of Christ), whereas the secularist has few noble motives at all in his anti-Catholicism or anti-Protestantism, whatever the case may be.

Catholic Initial Justification and Protestant "Faith Alone": Significant Common Ground?

By Dave Armstrong (5-3-04)

Initial justification is not at all by works in the sense that it is not the equivalent of Pelagianism, according to Trent's Decree on Justification, ch. 8. We can do nothing to earn it. And in initial justification, there is no time to do any work; it is a gift purely of grace, initiated by God. Works had nothing to do with it, as the Decree says.

Fernand Prat, S.J., a renowned biblical exegete and theologian, wrote:

Let us now return to Paul's own declarations. That of the Epistle to the Romans is the simplest: 'Man is justified by faith without the works of the Law.' The requirement of the argument as well as the order of the sentence makes the emphasis fall on the last words of the statement which resolves itself into two propositions: 'Man is justified without the works of the Law, independently of them' -- the principal proposition; 'Man is justified by faith' -- an incidental proposition. It will be remarked that the Apostle here is not concerned with the part which works play after justification. They they are then necessary appears from his system of morals, and that they increase the justice already acquired follows from his principles; but in the controversy with the Judaizers the debate turns chiefly on FIRST justification -- namely, on the passage from the state of sin to that of grace. The works of the Law are neither the cause nor the essential condition, nor even, in themselves, the occasion of it; and according to the most elementary principles of the Pauline theology one could say as much of natural works done before justification, and with more reason. But note well that St. Paul does not say that faith is the only disposition required, and we know by other passages that it must be accompanied by two complementary sentiments: repentance for the past and acceptance of the divine will for the future.

The second text is: 'Man is not justified by the works of the Law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ.' By making St. Paul say that man is not justified by works alone, but by works joined to faith, we get a meaning diametrically opposed to his doctrine and exactly what he fought against in the case of the Judaizers. The essentially complex phrase must be resolved thus: 'Man is not justified by the works of the Law; he is justified only by the faith of Jesus Christ.' Whether the faith of Jesus Christ is the faith of which he is the author, or the faith of which he is the object -- faith in himself, his person, and his preaching -- matters little; in either case it is the sum total of the Christian revelation, the Gospel as opposed to the Mosaic Law. We remark as before, that it is a question of works anterior to justification, and that the absolute necessity of faith does not exclude the other dispositions required.

(The Theology of St. Paul, tr. by John L. Stoddard, Westminster, MD: The Newman Bookshop, 1952, vol. 1 of 2, 175-176, emphasis added in one place: "FIRST")

[Fernand Prat. S.J. was a Professor of Scripture. He was one of the first consultants to the Pontifical Biblical Commission, and editor of the Etudes Bibliques. He helped to prepare many of the decisions regarding Modernism, leading up to its condemnation in 1907, and was involved in the planning of the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome]

Note that his phrase "first justification" is precisely synonymous with "initial justification." Whatever phrase Protestants use, in my Roget's Thesaurus, "first" is listed as a synonym of "initial" and "initial" is listed as a synonym for "first." As long as Catholics explain what we mean by it, I don't see anything wrong with using the term "initial justification"

[I was getting criticism from a Catholic, to the effect that I was compromising Catholic doctrine and accepting aspects of a specifically Protestant faith alone viewpoint]

We're no more bound (i.e., not absolutely, with no exceptions whatever) to the exact terminology of Trent than we are bound to the exact terminology of Holy Scripture ("Trinity" and "Hypostatic Union" immediately come to mind). Both the words and the doctrines develop all the time, and the situations we find ourselves in demand fresh approaches, without yielding one bit on any point of orthodoxy. St. Paul said "I have become all things to all people, so that by any means I may save some."

St. Paul cited pagan poets and philosophers on Mars Hill, in Athens, in order to make a connection with his hearers. He took what they knew and proceeded to build upon the truth that was in them, up to Christian theology and the gospel. He even utilized an idol of sorts as an illustration of a point and a witnessing tool: the altar "to an unknown god." All this despite there being nothing in the official decrees of the Council of Jerusalem just two chapters earlier giving Paul warrant to use such shocking language . . .

I submit that the same applies with Protestants. I grant that if the phrases "faith alone" and "grace alone" are used at all, that they must immediately be defined in a Catholic manner, with the contrast sharply emphasized. But the general principle of finding common ground in both doctrine and language, insofar as possible without any compromise, is a very biblical and conciliar one. E.g., the Decree on Ecumenism from Vatican II:

9. We must become familiar with the outlook of our separated brethren. Study is absolutely required for this, and it should be pursued in fidelity to the truth and with a spirit of good will . . . In this way, too, we will better understand the outlook of our separated brethren and more aptly PRESENT our own belief.

11. The MANNER and ORDER in which Catholic belief is EXPRESSED should in no way become an obstacle to dialogue with our brethren. It is, of course, essential that the doctrine be clearly presented in its entirety. Nothing is so foreign to the spirit of ecumenism as a false irenicism which harms the purity of Catholic doctrine and obscures its genuine and certain meaning. At the same time, Catholic belief must be EXPLAINED more profoundly and precisely, in such a way and in such TERMS that our separated brethren can also really UNDERSTAND it.

Note that the Council didn't say,

The language of Catholic belief from the Council of Trent must be explained more profoundly and precisely, whether it is in terms our separated brethren can understand or not.

Likewise, in the statement in Lumen Gentium, 67, referring to Mariology:

Let them carefully refrain from whatever might by WORD or deed lead the separated brethren or any others whatsoever into error about the true doctrine of the Church.

I think it is wise to choose our words very carefully, depending on who we are talking to at the moment, and to exercise a considerable amount of flexibility, because people aren't simply walking dictionaries or lexicons, and 1563 (like 1611, or even 1870) is not 2002.

Protestants, of course, deny that justification is a process at all, so "initial justification" can hardly be a "Protestant term." And since it is a process in Catholicism, and can be repeated, applying "initial justification" as a description of the chronologically first instance (a non-technical term) not only should not be controversial; it is simply common sense, and not contrary to Trent at all, as far as I can see. Trent teaches the concept in the above sense; it just doesn't have the exact term, which is no big deal. Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J., uses similar terminology:

Adults are justified FOR THE FIRST TIME either by personal faith, sorrow for sin and baptism, or by the perfect love of God, which is at least an implicit baptism of desire.

(Modern Catholic Dictionary, Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1980, "Justification, Theology
of," 302, emphasis added)

Also, Vatican I would appear to refer to a justifying faith without works, in some fashion:

Wherefore faith itself, even when it does not work by charity [Gal 5:6], is in itself a gift of God, and the act of faith is a work pertaining to salvation, by which man yields voluntary obedience to God Himself, by assenting to and cooperating with His grace, which he is able to resist (can. v).

(Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith, ch. III, "Of Faith")

Lastly, the article on the Councils of Orange in The Catholic Encyclopedia (1910), mentions "Operation of grace in initial justification or baptism." (vol. 11, 267)

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