Monday, May 17, 2004

Christian Filmmaker's Creed

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.



Dialogue on The Last Temptation of Christ and the Responsibility of Moviemakers to be Historically and Theologically Accurate + Christian Filmmaker's Creed (Dave Armstrong and Stanley D. Williams)

See other movie reviews of mine:

Meditations and Dialogues on The Passion of the Christ and its Cultural and Ecumenical Effects (Dave Armstrong with Kevin D. Johnson and P. Andrew Sandlin -- both Reformed Protestants, and Dr. James White)

Catholic Response to the Movie Luther (2003): "Good to Hear Both Sides of the Story"

Titanic as a Springboard for Cultural Analysis

Also, movie (and music) links:

My Favorite Rock, Pop, and R & B Singles, Albums, Bands, and Singers + Music and Movie Links

Friday, May 14, 2004

SOLA Scriptura vs. SOLO Scriptura, or, "Why History is Important For All Christians"

This was originally an explanation as to why I was writing about Luther's Mariology, when many Protestants today would say it was irrelevant, that they go by the Bible, etc. I have expanded the initial reply and added the quotations and subsequent remarks:


Yes, of course many Protestants think like that, but they are not representing the best of their own tradition. Sola Scriptura, rightly-understood, does not entail an "a-historicism" or denial of any role for tradition and
non-biblical authority whatsoever (that view is the distortion of SOLO Scriptura). The legitimate position of sola Scriptura simply claims that Scripture is the sole infallible authority (they deny that attribute to the Church and Tradition and councils). It is not:

"No Tradition or Church authority whatsoever."

It is, rather:

"No INFALLIBLE authorities other than Scripture."

A thoughtful, reflective Christian outlook (whether Catholic or Protestant) is interested in the history of doctrine. Protestants who care about history think it is highly relevant to hearken back to their "Reformation heritage" by studying Luther, Calvin, and other leading figures. They believe that these men were "Reformers," who were instrumental in bringing the Church back to its early state (I deny that, but I am describing Protestant views, not my own). This is all the more important in light of charges from within Protestantism that much of that heritage has been lost or distorted after the Enlightenment and liberal theology.

I would also point out as a Catholic that it is relevant to study their views because if they were the exemplars and teachers of sola Scriptura and were applying that rule in their lives, it is interesting to see where they come down on the various Catholic-Protestant differences, to see if there is more common ground than is often supposed.

So there are all sorts of reasons justifying such analyses. For me it is, first and foremost, an important historical question, because I am very interested in development of doctrine, history of doctrine and theology, and the 16th century and all that went on then. For those who think Christian history is of no importance or relevance, then I would say, "ignore my historical writings." They have serious problems that have to be dealt with on other grounds.

The "a-historical" solo Scriptura types will never understand what it is I am trying to achieve by these papers (establishment of historical fact and analyzing the relationship between history and dogma, and principles and behavior -- also finding common ground wherever possible).

I've cited the following five Protestant scholars many times, in an effort to highlight the
differences between historic sola Scriptura, as held by the mainstream Protestant Founders (who are sometimes referred to as the "magisterial Reformers"), and an extreme "Bible Only" mentality (which is a distortion and cardboard caricature of legitimate sola Scriptura), but it will be worthwhile to do so again (especially since I am still being absurdly accused of not comprehending these major differences to this day):

How do we know that what the church says is true? The Roman Catholic answer to this question is the clearest answer that has ever been formulated . . .

Since the Christian faith is an historical faith, and since Christians are rooted in history, . . . the gospel must be "handed down" from generation to generation. Protestants who refuse to concede the fact for fear that it may have Roman Catholic consequences are living in a dream world.

The "Roman Catholic consequences" begin to emerge with the assertion that the Church, through its bishops, is the guardian of tradition. The task of the church is to see that the gospel is handed down without being corrupted. Since not all the nuances of the faith are explicitly developed in the Bible, it is the contribution of tradition to take what
is only implicit in Scripture, and make it explicit in the church. Thus tradition is creative and dynamic, and the church sees to it that tradition neither contradicts itself nor becomes inconsistent with the Biblical witness. This means that Scripture and tradition are two sources of truth and must not be separated. If they are, so the view maintains, disaster follows. The Reformers asserted that tradition had distorted the Biblical witness . . .

Roman Catholics believe, more fervently than Protestants imagine, that Scripture and tradition are complementary rather than antithetical sources of truth.

(Robert McAfee Brown, The Spirit of Protestantism, Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 1961, 172-173, 214)

A Bible-only mentality virtually equates spiritual reality with the text of Scripture itself, whereas the Scripture is a pointer to or a witness to that reality . . . There is a difference between being biblical and biblicistic (i.e., employing the Bible-only mentality). There is a difference between honoring sola scriptura and bibliolatry (the excess veneration of Scripture). . . . On more than one occasion it has been pointed out that the Bible-only view of Scripture is very much like the Muslim view of Scripture . . . Muslims believe that the earthly Qu'ran is a perfect copy of an actual Qu'ran in Paradise . . . The Christian view of Scripture is that there is a human and historical dimension to Scripture . . .

Scripture is not the totality of all God has said and done in this world. Scripture is that part of revelation and history specially chosen for the life of the people of God through centuries. Sola scriptura means that the canon of Scripture is the final authority in the church; it does not claim to be the record of all God has said and done . . .

Patient research in the matter of tradition has brought to the surface the good side of the concept. Paul himself uses the language of tradition in a good sense (1 Cor. 11:23, 15:3). Both Roman Catholic and Protestant scholars have been coming closer and closer in a newer and better notion of tradition on both sides. For example, they agree that much of the revelation given in the period of time contained in the Book of Genesis must have been carried on as tradition . . . In the Christian period the bridge between Christ and the written documents of the New Testament was certainly tradition.

The sola scriptura of the Reformers did not mean a total rejection of tradition. It meant that only Scripture had the final word on a subject . . . If we reject church tradition we have no idea what the New Testament is attempting to communicate. There is no question that the great majority of American evangelicals are not happy to have such a large weight given to tradition. Even so . . . might we not be heirs of tradition in such a manner that we are not aware of it? However we vote on this issue, it remains true that scholars no longer can talk about Scripture and totally ignore tradition . . .

If a Christian could not have his own Scripture until the time of printing and its translation into modern languages, then the kind of Christianity the Bible-only mentality accepts could not have existed until the sixteenth century . . . If copies of the Holy Scripture were rare because of the expensive cost of reproduction by hand-copying then there must have been other valid sources through which the laymen could know the contents of the Christian faith. Such may be: the preaching of the bishop in the early church . . . ; the sacraments and the liturgy which used biblical themes, biblical personalities, and quotations from Scripture so that solid biblical truth could be learned indirectly . . . ; church architecture, decorations within a church, and other forms of Christian art which reflected biblical themes and materials.

This is not an exhaustive list but it does show how the millions of Christians . . . could have had a substantial understanding of the Christian faith prior to the invention of printing. And if one has such a perspective on the whole history of the church he need not be caught in the logical box to which the Bible-only mentality leads . . . I strongly believe that the current effort to make a certain doctrine of Scripture the Wesen ["essence"] of Christianity represents a Bible-Only mentality which cannot be supported because it is so narrow that it becomes self-defeating.

. . . We have tried to show that there is a difference between a Bible-Only mentality which is limited and limiting and a healthy, strong, theological stance on sola scriptura. The latter is in total accord with the theology of the Reformers and is compatible with a genuinely contemporary evangelical theological scholarship.

(Bernard Ramm, in Jack B. Rogers, editor, Biblical Authority, Waco, TX: Word
Books, 1977, "Is 'Scripture Alone' the Essence of Christianity?," 116-117, 119, 121-123)

The sola scriptura principle does not exclude a respectful listening to the wisdom of the past. For we stand in a community of faith and cannot leap over two thousand years of Christian history in disregard of the prodigious labors already done . . . Biblicism is an antitraditional preoccupation with the Bible. It limits its interests to the Bible alone and does not seek nor accept the guidance and correction which the history of exegesis affords. There is something audacious about such a leap from the twentieth century back into the first century without even a glance at the ways in which Scripture has hitherto been understood. Indeed, in such a case there is the real danger that the interpreter will bring the Bible under his own control. Every explicit denial of tradition involves a hidden commitment to a personal brand of tradition.

(Clark Pinnock, Biblical Revelation, Chicago: Moody Press, 1971, 118-119)

The Reformers did not in the least mean to say that Scripture was of no value to Rome. As they saw it, however, the teaching and practice of the Roman Catholic Church did not seem to consider Scripture "sufficient." It could be demonstrated, so the Reformers thought, that certain "truths" and "values" had been adopted that appeared to have no essential relationship to the gospel of Scripture . . .

Had that which was "entrusted" (I Tim 6:20) to the church been preserved in the course of the centuries? Thus we face the problem of "tradition," . . . It became a central question whether the deposit of faith had been handed over from generation to generation in a pure and undefiled manner . . .

The "preservation," . . . is not in the least a concern peculiar to the Roman Catholic Church. Every church is concerned with it if it indeed wants to be the church; . . . Furthermore, it is a complex question, since the church is not and cannot be an exact replica of the church of the New Testament. It entered history and was naturally influenced by its own life through history in numerous new situations. Tradition plays a decisive role in this development. The gospel, heard and accepted, is not being carried along as a rigid and erratic block . . . It is a living thing with its own dynamic . . .

One must be on guard, therefore, not to approach the problem of "biblical tradition" in a reactionary manner, as if to claim that the gospel would be present in different periods and cultures without human mediation and without "tradition." . . .

The function of the sola Scriptura in the Reformation was to focus attention on God's Word as a principle of interpretation over against human arbitrariness.

(G.C. Berkouwer, Studies in Dogmatics: Holy Scripture, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1975, translated from the Dutch edition of 1967 by Jack B. Rogers, 299-300, 306)

The Reformers did not despise the treasury of church tradition . . . But the difference is this: For the Reformers no church council, synod, classical theologian, or early church father is regarded as infallible. All are open to correction and critique . . .

The two primary thrusts of Sola Scriptura point to: 1) Scripture's uniqueness as normative authority, and 2) its uniqueness as the source of special revelation. Norm and source are the twin implicates of the Sola Scriptura principle.

(R.C. Sproul, in James Montgomery Boice, editor, The Foundation of Biblical Authority, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1978, ch. 4: "Sola Scriptura: Crucial to Evangelicalism," 109)

If there remains any doubt about my views on the matter, here is what I wrote about it in my first book, A Biblical Defense of Catholicism Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 2003, 4), in Chapter One, "Bible and Tradition":

The concept of sola Scriptura, it must be noted, is not in principle opposed to the importance and validity of Church history, Tradition, ecumenical Councils, or the authority of Church Fathers and prominent theologians. The difference lies in the relative position of authority held by Scripture and Church institutions and proclamations. In theory, the Bible judges all of these, since, for the evangelical Protestant, it alone is infallible and the Church and popes and Councils are not.

This chapter was first written in 1991 and revised in 1994. The entire book in its revised form was completed in May 1996, so I have obviously believed these things for many years, and in fact, I did as a Protestant also, prior to 1990, as I had these books I cite in my personal library during the 1980s. In the footnotes for this section I mentioned all five of these sources, with full bibliographical information, in addition to some further sources:

1 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Bk. 4, ch. 10; . . . Martin Marty, A Short History of Christianity (New York: Meridian, 1959), 216.

2 Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Bk. 1, chs. 6-9 . . .

3 Martin Luther, On the Councils and the Churches, 1539; . . .

This is the last time I will point this out. The next time someone foolishly "argues" (i.e., tells lies, corrected times without number) that I don't understand the difference between sola Scriptura and the corrupt cardboard caricature of solo Scriptura, I will simply direct them and their readers to this paper. If they wish to then continue lying and misrepresenting my views after having been thoroughly disabused and corrected, that is up to them. One tires of being lied about.

I have believed what I have written here, for some 23 years (that includes nine years as a Protestant). Of course, I now reject sola Scriptura, as a Catholic, but that doesn't mean that I don't (or didn't) know the definition of the term or the nature of the concept. I've held to the same definition and understanding all along; I simply no longer believe what I once did about it, as to its truth and implications and effect.

But I continue to believe that it is of the utmost importance to accurately describe our opponents' views when critiquing them (especially since Catholic views are so often distorted and molded into straw men with little resemblance to our actual dogmatic beliefs -- not doing the same to our Protestant brothers is a straightforward application of the Golden Rule, as well as good scholarship and dialogical method).

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Trent Doesn't Necessarily Exclude All Variants of Imputation (Kenneth Howell)

The following comes from some e-mail in my files from Dr. Kenneth Howell (July 1996). He was a Presbyterian minister from 1978 to 1996, and converted to the Catholic Church in June 1996. Dr. Howell holds a Master of Divinity degree from Westminster Seminary, and Ph.D's in General Linguistics (Indiana) and History (Lancaster Univ., U.K.). He was Associate Professor of Biblical Languages and Literature at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi for seven years.

* * * * *

Trent does not exclude the notion of imputation. It only denies that justification consists solely in imputation. The relevant canons are numbers 9,10,11. Canon 9 does not even deny sola fide completely but only a very minimal interpretation of that notion. I translate literally:

If anyone says that the impious are justified by faith alone so that he understands [by this] that nothing else is required in which [quo] he cooperates in working out the grace of justification and that it is not necessary at all that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his will, let him be anathema.

Canon 9 then only anathematizes such a reduced form of faith that no outworking of that faith is necessary. This canon in no way says that imputation is not true but only that it is heretical to hold that justification consists solely in imputation.

I am puzzled why anyone would say that extrinsic righteousness might be excluded by Trent. The only righteousness that justifies is Christ's. But Catholic theology teaches that what is Christ's becomes ours by grace. In fact Canon 10 anathematizes anyone who denies that we can be justified without Christ's righteousness or anyone who says that we are formally justified by that righteousness alone. Here's the words:

If anyone says that men are justified without Christ's righteousness which he merited for us or that they are formally justified by it itself
[i.e. righteousness] [per eam ipsam], let him be anathema.

Canon 10 says that Christ's righteousness is both necessary and not limited to imputation i.e. formally. So, imputation is not excluded but only said to be not sufficient.

With regard to imputation, if Trent indeed excludes it, I am ready to reject it. But the wording of the decrees does not seem to me to require this.

How could I become a Catholic if I still thought imputation was acceptable? Because I came to see that the rigid distinction between justification and sanctification so prominent in Reformation theologies was an artificial distinction that Scripture did not support. When one takes into account the whole of Scripture, especially James' and Jesus' teaching on the necessity of perfection for salvation (e.g. Matt 5;8), I realized that man cannot be simul justus et peccator. Transformational righteousness is absolutely essential for final salvation. Once one realizes this, the entire Catholic system of sacraments, purgatory etc. fits into a coherent pattern.

But does this mean that "imputation ... is totally foreign to Catholic thought?" I am not sure it does. I find it even harder to believe that Christ's righteousness declaring us forgiven is "totally
antithetical to transformational righteousness."

Perhaps it is very important to clarify definitions at this point . . . One is the Reformed/Lutheran idea of an account with God that has no direct bearing on our real state in life. Let's call this the strong imputation thesis. I have no doubt that this was rejected by Trent. But a softer form -- call it the weak imputation thesis -- is that imputation is a declaration of forgiveness of the kind implied in Jesus's words to the thief on the cross, "Today you will be with me in paradise." Other examples are our Lord's words to Zaccheus, "Today, salvation has arrived at this house because he himself is a son of Abraham." Or to the woman caught in adultery, "Neither do I condemn you." This declaration is what we receive when, having confessed our sins sincerely to our priests, we may be confident of the forgiveness of Christ. The words of the human priest are Christ's words of forgiveness. We have been declared forgiven.

* * *

There can be no doubt that Trent stressed transformational righteousness as that which Christ infuses into our souls. The frequent references to baptism clearly speak of a real justice that results from Christ's meritorious work. Furthermore, it's evident that the idea of being thought of as righteous by God, without really being so, is unacceptable. This is particuarly emphasized in chapter 7 when speaking about the formal cause of justification. As with Aristotle's use of this category "formal cause", Trent meant that which shapes us (i.e. gives us form) into righteous people, not simply being thought of as righteous (non modo reputamur sed vere justi nominamur et sumus). To put the matter in another manner, God thinks of us as righteous only when we are in fact righteous. There is no legal fiction.

Having said that, it seems to me that there is also a place in Trent for a declaration which not only recognizes but also confers that righteousness of Christ which is the ground of our justification. In chapter 14 "On Lapses and their Restoration" Trent insists on the necessity of sacramental confession as the means of restoration and it explicitly says that sacramental absolution is the only means of remitting eternal punishment and guilt. The Latin here is somewhat convoluted and the standard English translation (Deferrari) is so literal that it is difficult to follow. So, I'll retranslate the relevant section in a less literal but hopefully more comprehensible form:

A man's repentance after falling ... contains not only a cessation from sins by hating them (or a contrite and humble heart). It also requires a sacramental confession of those same sins, made at least in desire and at a proper time. This involves sacramental absolution as well as satisfaction by means of fasting, almsgiving, prayers and other pious exercises of the spiritual life. These pious acts do not pay for eternal punishment because that along with guilt can only be remitted by the sacrament or the desire for the sacrament. They pay for temporal punishment which is not always fully remitted (as is the case in baptism) for those who have grieved the Holy Spirit by their ingratitude for the grace of God they once received.

Here the Council Fathers go out of their way to stress that our standing before God in this life without guilt and eternal punishment comes from the declaration and conferring of forgiveness found in sacramental absolution. I am reminded of something I heard about Mother Teresa. She supposedly said when we come out of confession, we are without sin just for a little while. Belief in the objective nature of the sacraments requires us to say that the priest's declaration confers what it signifies. And what does it signify? That Christ our High Priest is granting us pardon on the basis of his own merits.

How does this bear on imputation? The Protestant doctrine, it seems to me, has at least two sides. Imputation is the declaration of forgiveness on God's part because of Christ's work but it is also a legal fiction that has nothing immediately to do with real (subjective) state of the penitent. Now I think the declaration side of imputation is acceptable to Trent but not the legal fiction side. The difference between the Tridentine and the Reformation views, in addition to many other aspects, is that in the latter view God only sees us as righteous while in the former, Christ confers righteousness upon (and in) us.

There is another reason why I think imputation is not totally excluded but is acceptable in a modified form. Canon 9 rejects sola fide but, as we know, Trent does not reject faith as essential to justification. It only rejects the reductionism implied in the sola. So also, canon 11 rejects sola imputatione justitiae Christi and sola peccatorum remissione. Surely Trent includes remission of sins in justification. Why would we not say then that it also includes imputation of Christ's righteousness? If faith (canon 9) and remission of sins (canon 11) are essential to justification, then should we not also say that imputation of Christ's righteousness is also necessary? Indeed, it seems to me that this is precisely what is being emphasized in requirement for sacramental absolution in chapter 14.

What is wrong with the Reformation view then? It is the sola part. Faith is essential but not sola fide. Remission of sins is essential but not sola remissione. Imputation via absolution is essential but not sola imputatione. I remember well how this hit me one day in my journey. So much of Protestantism represents a reductionism of the Catholic faith. The Protestants added their qualifiers (sola) and thereby threw out the fullness of faith.

There is no doubt that the Protestant theory of legal fiction is just that, a fiction. That must be rejected. But the declarative side of justification does not need to be thrown out completely.

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

N.T. Wright: Rutherford House Lecture on St. Paul (With My Reactions)

Rutherford House, Edinburgh
10th Edinburgh Dogmatics Conference: 25–28 August 2003
N. T. Wright, Bishop of Durham


This will be excerpts, highlighting the more "Catholic" and less "traditional" Reformed elements of Wright's thoughts (I won't bother always adding ellipses but I will at least separate material from different paragraphs). My comments will be in blue:


There are several different agendas coming together at this point. The issue is sometimes treated as a variation on old modernist controversies, at other times as a clash between a Christian absolutism and a religious relativism, and at other times as a variation on a perceived protestant/catholic divide (or even a high-church/low-church divide), with the so-called new perspective focusing on ecclesiology rather than soteriology and being condemned for so doing. And that’s just the beginning. From time to time correspondents draw my attention to various websites on which you can find scathing denunciations of me for abandoning traditional protestant orthodoxy and puzzled rejoinders from people who have studied my work and know that I’m not saying what many of my critics say I’m saying. Go to and look at the comments which anonymous correspondents have appended to some of my books.

Poor guy. I can relate on a very minor scale -- see the denunciations of me on the sidebar which make me resemble a cross between Attila the Hun and Vlad the Impaler. I look at some of this stuff, look around the room, and think, "is this ME they are talking about"? I admire Wright for seemingly accepting the nonsense written about him with such cheer. Good for him.

When I began research on Paul, thirty years ago this autumn, my aim was to understand Paul in general and Romans in particular better than I had done before, as part of my heartfelt and lifelong commitment to scripture, and to the sola scriptura principle, believing that the better the church understands and lives by scripture the better its worship, preaching and common life will be. I was conscious of thereby standing methodologically in the tradition of the reformers, for whom exegesis was the lifeblood of the church, and who believed that Scripture should stand over against all human traditions. I have not changed this aim and this method, nor do I intend to.

So Wright comes to his conclusions essentially from Scripture alone, not from a nefarious, heretical, jesuitical "Romish influence".

I believe that often both sides were operating with mistaken understandings of Paul. I believe that Luther, Calvin, and many of the others would tell us to read scripture afresh, with all the tools available to us – which is after all what they did – and to treat their own doctrinal conclusions as important but not as important as scripture itself. That is what I have tried to do, and I believe I am honouring them thereby.

Luther's and Calvin's arbitrarily dogmatic attitudes towards their own proclamations and dissent against them often contradicted their own stated principles, but as far as their theoretical statements on authority, sola Scriptura, etc., Wright is, I believe, correct.

I was puzzled by one exegetical issue in particular, which I here oversimplify for the sake of summary. If I read Paul in the then standard Lutheran way, Galatians made plenty of sense, but I had to fudge (as I could see dozens of writers fudging) the positive statements about the Law in Romans. If I read Paul in the Reformed way . . . Romans made a lot of sense, but I had to fudge . . . the negative statements about the Law in Galatians.

. . . it dawned on me, I think in 1976, that a different solution was possible. In Romans 10.3 Paul, writing about his fellow Jews, declares that they are ignorant of the righteousness of God, and are seeking to establish ‘their own righteousness’. The wider context, not least 9.30–33, deals with the respective positions of Jews and Gentiles within God’s purposes – and with a lot more besides, of course, but not least that. Supposing, I thought, Paul meant ‘seeking to establish their own righteousness’, not in the sense of a moral status based on the performance of Torah and the consequent accumulation of a treasury of merit, but an ethnic status based on the possession of Torah as the sign of automatic covenant membership? I saw at once that this would make excellent sense of Romans 9 and 10, and would enable the positive statements about the Law throughout Romans to be given full weight while making it clear that this kind of use of Torah, as an ethnic talisman, was an abuse. I sat up in bed that night reading through Galatians and saw that at point after point this way of looking at Paul would make much better sense of Galatians, too, than either the standard post-Luther readings or the attempted Reformed ones.

This fits in with my own longtime understanding, both as a Protestant and as a Catholic, that the New Covenant was a continuation and consistent development of the Old, that Grace was not unalterably opposed to Law, but rather, that Jesus came to "fulfill" the Law, not abolish it (Matthew 5:17-18). I hadn't worked it all through as Wright has, of course, but what he is saying is perfectly consistent with my more typically "Reformed" (and Catholic) -- rather than dispensational or revivalistic or "pietistic" -- understanding of the relationship between Law and Grace.

In other words, this makes a great deal of sense to me and strikes me as a very helpful exegetical insight that transcends the Catholic-Protestant debate (since I myself would have agreed with this while on either side of the fence). And I cited my friend Al Kresta at length in my first book, expressing a lot of this same kind of thought (because he had hundreds of commentaries in his library and kept up with the field of professional exegesis, as a pastor and Christian talk show host).

I came to this position, not because I learned it from Sanders or Dunn, but because of the struggle to think Paul’s thoughts after him as a matter of obedience to scripture.

Amen! May we all be afflicted with this disease!

It is blindingly obvious when you read Romans and Galatians – though you would never have known this from any of the theologians we discussed yesterday – that virtually whenever Paul talks about justification he does so in the context of a critique of Judaism and of the coming together of Jew and Gentile in Christ. As an exegete determined to listen to scripture rather than abstract my favourite bits from it I cannot ignore this. The only notice that most mainstream theology has taken of this context is to assume that the Jews were guilty of the kind of works-righteousness of which theologians from Augustine to Calvin and beyond have criticised their opponents . . . What I miss entirely in the Old Perspective, but find so powerfully in some modern Pauline scholarship, is Paul’s sense of an underlying narrative, the story of God and Israel, God and Abraham, God and the covenant people, and the way in which that story came to its climax, as he says, ‘when the time had fully come’ with the coming of Jesus the Messiah.

This is excellent analysis. In other words, Paul's concern is with narrative, story, salvation history, development of historic soteriology and of the Jewish understanding of eschatological salvation along with the new Christian expansions upon and development of same, with the fuller revelation of Jesus Christ and the coming of the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete -- as opposed to mere abstract formulae (which is a far more "Greek" approach than a biblical, Hebraic one).

Like America looking for a new scapegoat after the collapse of the Cold War, and seizing on the Islamic world as the obvious target, many conservative writers, having discovered themselves in possession of the Pauline field after the liberals got tired of it, have looked around for new enemies. Here is something called the New Perspective; it seems to be denying some of the things we have normally taught; very well, let us demonize it, lump its proponents together, and nuke them from a great height. That has not made a pretty sight. Speaking as one of those who is regularly thus carpet-bombed, what I find frustrating is the refusal of the traditionalists to do three things: first, to differentiate the quite separate types of New Perspective; second, to engage in the actual exegetical debates upon which the whole thing turns, instead of simply repeating a Lutheran or similar line as though that settled matters; and third, to recognise that some of us at least are brothers in Christ who have come to the positions we hold not because of some liberal, modernist or relativist agenda but as a result of prayerful and humble study of the text which is and remains our sole authority.

It is ironic that many of the same folks who engage in anti-Catholic propaganda and slander, now turn their sights also onto the cutting-edge of current-day Protestant exegesis. They assume that any exciting new development must be a corruption of what came before. But this isn't surprising, given their overall fundamentalistic, sectarian, exclusivistic mindset. They are bound by their own categories, while those of us who remain orthodox within our own historic Christian traditions (and more in tune with the actual heritage, rather than post-Enlightenment, post-liberal caricatures and bastardized versions of it) can freely talk about this stuff without all the ludicrous charges flying around.

To give the devil his due, however, I can see how many elements in Wright's thought do overturn many centuries of cherished Protestant traditions (even in some key areas). So in a sense, one can understand a strong reaction against this. It appears at first glance (from one perspective) just like all the usual liberal attacks on received precedent and doctrine. But if one assumes, like Wright, that even Luther and Calvin could have been wrong on some things, then it shouldn't pose a problem within a Protestant perspective. Wright could be disagreed with, but shouldn't be demonized and hung in effigy.

Like Calvin, we must claim the right to stand critically within a tradition . . . if we are siblings in Christ there are, I think, appropriate ways of addressing one another and of speaking about one another, and I regret that these have not always characterized the debate.


I begin where Romans begins – with the gospel. My proposal is this. When Paul refers to ‘the gospel’, he is not referring to a system of salvation, though of course the gospel implies and contains this, nor even to the good news that there now is a way of salvation open to all, but rather to the proclamation that the crucified Jesus of Nazareth has been raised from the dead and thereby demonstrated to be both Israel’s Messiah and the world’s true Lord. ‘The gospel’ is not ‘you can be saved, and here’s how’; the gospel, for Paul, is ‘Jesus Christ is Lord’.

I have been stating this (or something close to it, at any rate) for 23 years now, both as a Protestant and as a Calvinist. I fought Protestants on this point as one of them, and continue to do so as a Catholic, having little success. So it is refreshing to hear a prominent Protestant exegete agree with me. Thus I wrote in my 1997 paper, "What is the Gospel?":

It's quite curious to me that so many Protestants want to define the gospel in the strict sense of "justification by faith alone," when the Bible itself is very explicit and clear that this is not the case at all . . . St. Paul defines the gospel in Acts 13:16-41 as the Resurrection of Jesus (vss. 32-33), and in 1 Cor 15:1-8 as His death, burial, and Resurrection . . . The gospel is -- as Paul teaches -- the death, burial and Resurrection of Jesus. This is the "good news," not some technical soteriological theory. Even common sense would dictate that this "good news" is comprised of Jesus' redemptive work for us - the great historical drama of His Incarnation and Atonement, not forensic,
"legal," imputed justification! And the Prophets foretold these events, not a fine-tuned theory of application of those events to the believer -- irregardless of whoever has the correct theory. How could a mere theological abstract reasonably be called "good news"?

. . . Catholics and Protestants both hold to the gospel as biblically defined above. We differ on questions of justification, which is the application of salvation and the gospel and Jesus' work to the individual, not the gospel itself. Nor is TULIP (Calvinism) the gospel, strictly speaking. The key is the absolute primacy of grace and the utter condemnation of Pelagianism in both systems.

. . . since the gospel is the heraldic proclamation of Jesus as Lord, it is not first and foremost a suggestion that one might like to enjoy a new religious experience. Nor is it even the take-it-or-leave-it offer of a way to salvation. It is a royal summons to submission, to obedience, to allegiance; and the form that this submission and obedient allegiance takes is of course faith. That is what Paul means by ‘the obedience of faith’.

How different from the usual "four spiritual laws" presentation of the "gospel" in so many biblical quarters today. Catholics have other problems. As individuals we scarcely proclaim the gospel at all. So in one camp it is skewed and wrongly-defined; in the other it is hardly heard except in church.

Despite some odd recent attempts to deny this, if you want to understand forensic justification you must go to the law-court and find how the metaphor works. In the Jewish lawcourt Paul would have known, there is no Director of Public Prosecutions; there is a judge, with a plaintiff and a defendant appearing before him. When the case has been heard, the judge finds in favour of one party and against the other. Once that has happened, the vindicated party possesses the status ‘righteous’ – not itself a moral statement, we note, but a statement of how things stand in terms of the now completed lawsuit. As someone said to me yesterday, it all depends what you mean by ‘righteous’. But this status of righteousness has nothing to do with the righteousness of the judge. For the judge to be righteous, it is necessary that he try the case fairly, refuse bribes or other favouritism, uphold the law, and take special note for the helpless, the widows, and so on. When either the plaintiff or the defendant is declared ‘righteous’ at the end of the case, there is no sense that in either case the judge’s own righteousness has been passed on to them, by imputation, impartation, or any other process. What they have is a status of ‘righteous’ which comes from the judge. Let me stress, in particular, that when the judge finds in favour of one party or the other, he quite literally makes the righteous; because ‘righteous’ at this point is not a word denoting moral character, but only and precisely the status that you have when the court has found in your favour. If this had been kept in mind in earlier centuries a great deal of heartache and puzzle might have been avoided.

Fascinating. I love stuff like this, that gets back to the culture behind the biblical metaphors.

Is there then no ‘reckoning of righteousness’ in, for instance, Romans 5.14–21? Yes, there is; but my case is that this is not God’s own righteousness, or Christ’s own righteousness, that is reckoned to God’s redeemed people, but rather the fresh status of ‘covenant member’, and/or ‘justified sinner’, which is accredited to those who are in Christ, who have heard the gospel and responded with ‘the obedience of faith’.

More than enough to rattle more than a few Protestant cages . . . :-)

. . . it seems that there has been a massive conspiracy of silence on something which was quite clear for Paul (as indeed for Jesus). Paul, in company with mainstream second-Temple Judaism, affirms that God’s final judgment will be in accordance with the entirety of a life led – in accordance, in other words, with works. He says this clearly and unambiguously in Romans 14.10–12 and 2 Corinthians 5.10. He affirms it in that terrifying passage about church-builders in 1 Corinthians 3. But the main passage in question is of course Romans 2.1–16 . . . here is the first statement about justification in Romans, and lo and behold it affirms justification according to works! The doers of the law, he says, will be justified (2.13). Shock, horror; Paul cannot (so many have thought) have really meant it. So the passage has been treated as a hypothetical position which Paul then undermines by showing that nobody can actually achieve it; or, by Sanders for instance, as a piece of unassimilated Jewish preaching which Paul allows to stand even though it conflicts with other things he says. But all such theories are undermined by exegesis itself, not least by observing the many small but significant threads that stitch Romans 2 into the fabric of the letter as a whole . . . The ‘works’ in accordance with which the Christian will be vindicated on the last day are not the unaided works of the self-help moralist. Nor are they the performance of the ethnically distinctive Jewish boundary-markers (sabbath, food-laws and circumcision). They are the things which show, rather, that one is in Christ; the things which are produced in one’s life as a result of the Spirit’s indwelling and operation . . .

I am fascinated by the way in which some of those most conscious of their reformation heritage shy away from Paul’s clear statements about future judgment according to works . . . he is still clear that the things he does in the present, by moral and physical effort, will count to his credit on the last day, precisely because they are the effective signs that the Spirit of the living Christ has been at work in him. We are embarrassed about saying this kind of thing; Paul clearly is not. What on earth can have happened to a sola scriptura theology that it should find itself forced to screen out such emphatic, indeed celebratory, statements?

Praise God for this!! I have made this point (when I didn't know N.T. Wright from one of the brothers who invented the airplane) in my chapter on justification in my first book, pointing out how Paul has many statements about works in this sense (without denying the primacy of grace). I also stressed in a failed dialogue with an anti-Catholic Calvinist, that all the scenes of judgment that I could find in Scripture always talked about works alone, and never about faith. I didn't know I was perfectly in line with some of the best Protestant biblical scholarship today. Now I do. And this shows, too, of course, that the Catholic conception of the relationship of faith and works is eminently biblical -- as I have contended for over thirteen years now, to the guffaws and smirks of our beloved anti-Catholic brand of Protestants.

Paul uses ‘justify’ to denote something other than, and logically subsequent to, what we have often thought of as the moment of conversion, when someone who hasn’t before believed the gospel is gripped by the word and the Spirit and comes to believe it, to submit to Jesus as the risen Lord. Here is the central point in the controversy between what I say about Paul and what the tradition, not least the protestant tradition, has said. The tradition has used ‘justify’ and its cognates to denote conversion, or at least the initial moment of the Christian life, and has then debated broader and narrower definitions of what counts. My reading of Paul indicates that he does not use the word like that; and my method, shared with the reformers, insists that I prefer scripture itself to even the finest traditions of interpretation . . . For Paul, ‘justification’ is something that follows on from the ‘call’ through which a sinner is summoned to turn from idols and serve the living God, to turn from sin and follow Christ, to turn from death and believe in the God who raised Jesus from the dead . . . the final verb in Paul’s sequence is not ‘sanctified’. He would say that this has already happened to all baptised believers (see 1 Corinthians 6.10f.). It is ‘glorified’.

. . . this declaration, this vindication, occurs twice. It occurs in the future, as we have seen, on the basis of the entire life a person has led in the power of the Spirit – that is, it occurs on the basis of ‘works’ in Paul’s redefined sense. And, near the heart of Paul’s theology, it occurs in the present as an anticipation of that future verdict, when someone, responding in believing obedience to the ‘call’ of the gospel, believes that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead. This is the point about justification by faith – to revert to the familiar terminology: it is the anticipation in the present of the verdict which will be reaffirmed in the future. Justification is not ‘how someone becomes a Christian’. It is God’s declaration about the person who has just become a Christian. And, just as the final declaration will consist, not of words so much as of an event, namely, the resurrection of the person concerned into a glorious body like that of the risen Jesus, so the present declaration consists, not so much of words, though words there may be, but of an event, the event in which one dies with the Messiah and rises to new life with him, anticipating that final resurrection. In other words, baptism. I was delighted yesterday to discover that not only Chrysostom and Augustine but also Luther would here have agreed with me. Traditional protestants may not like this much, but it is I submit what Paul is saying.

This thought has much in common with the fashion in which I have analyzed justification in many papers and book chapters: as more of a process; not a one-time event. And he describes justification as the result of baptism. I wove many of these same strands of Scripture together in my lengthy dialogue on baptism, showing that Paul's interplay between sanctification and justification, and their relation to baptism was far different from the usual Protestant paradigms. One of my arguments was as follows:

Titus 3:5 (NIV):

he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.

Compare this to John 3:5:

Jesus answered, "I tell you the truth, unless a man is born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. (cf. 3:3: "unless a man is born again ...")

The two passages are almost exactly parallel:

Titus: "saved" / John: "enter the kingdom of God"
Titus: "washing of rebirth" / John: "born of water"
Titus: "renewal by the Holy Spirit" / John: "born . . . of the Spirit"

This is how one interprets Scripture: by comparing it with itself when there are obvious parallels, to help determine what the less clear passages might mean. I think this one is undeniable. What is "washing" in one verse (with two other common elements) is shown to be "water" in the other. Thus, baptism is tied to salvation, in accord with the other verses above. The evidence is strong. 1 Corinthians 6:11, is also similar to Titus 3:5:

And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.

So the "justified" is the parallel of "kingdom of God" and "saved" in Titus 3:5 and John 3:5; "washed" goes along with "washing of rebirth" and "born of water," and all this was done by the "Spirit." Once again, it is a striking threefold parallelism (now for three passages). Baptism is again being discussed. Furthermore, it is notable in that baptism, justification, and sanctification are all mentioned together. The past tense justification fits in with the Catholic notion of initial justification (cf. the discussion of Abraham's three justifications, above). But in Protestantism, justification (for any true, "saved," elect Christian) is past, and sanctification is in the future, or (more accurately) ongoing. Paul -- not seeming to understand the rules for Protestant theology, places sanctification with justification, not apart from it, and also in the past tense.

According to Romans 6, when God looks at the baptised Christian he sees him or her in Christ. But Paul does not say that he sees us clothed with the earned merits of Christ. That would of course be the wrong meaning of ‘righteous’ or ‘righteousness’. He sees us within the vindication of Christ, that is, as having died with Christ and risen again with him. I suspect that it was the mediaeval over-concentration on righteousness, on iustitia, that caused the protestant reformers to push for imputed righteousness to do the job they rightly saw was needed. But in my view they have thereby distorted what Paul himself was saying.

It should be noted that the late medieval period was not noted for its sterling teaching on soteriology. There were several versions of Pelagianism floating around among the prevailing nominalists at the time, which ran contrary to the legitimate Catholic orthodox tradition of sola gratia, from the 2nd Council of Orange and St. Thomas Aquinas. Whatever was the cause of these misunderstandings, the early Protestants got it wrong, as Wright contends, because they misinterpreted Paul.

. . . if we are thinking Paul’s thoughts after him, we are not justified by faith by believing in justification by faith. We are justified by faith by believing in the gospel itself – in other words, that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead . . . One of the sad ironies of the last four hundred years is that, at least since 1541, we have allowed disputes about how people become Christians – that which we thought was denoted by the language of justification – to divide us, when the doctrine of justification itself, urging us to unite across our cultural divides, went unheard . . . justification by faith tells me that if my Roman neighbour believes that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead then he or she is a brother or sister, however much I believe them muddled, even dangerously so, on other matters.

Excellent; music to my Bible-loving, ecumenical ears.

I discover an irony in the anti-New Perspective reaction in specifically Reformed circles. The New Perspective launched by Sanders and taken up eagerly in many American contexts was always a reaction, not to Reformed readings of Paul, but to Lutheran ones and the broader protestantism and evangelicalism that went along for the Lutheran ride, particularly in its negative assessment of Judaism and its Law. Had the Reformed reading of Paul, with its positive role for Israel and the Law, been in the ascendancy rather than the Lutheran one, the New Perspective might not have been necessary, or not in that form.

In this case, the Protestant tendency towards false dichotomies has prevailed. Good for Wright, that he refuses to fall prey to that.

I end with a plea. I have lived most of my life in and around evangelical circles in which I have come to recognise a strange phenomenon. It is commonly assumed that Luther and Calvin got Paul right. But often when people think of Luther and Calvin they see them, and hence Paul, through three subsequent lenses provided by western culture. The Enlightenment highlighted the abstract truths of reason over against the messy facts of history; many Protestants have put Lessing and Luther together and still thought they were reading Paul. The Romantic movement highlighted inner feeling over against outer, physical reality; many have thence supposed that this was what Paul, and Luther and Calvin, were really saying (hence the knee-jerk protestant anti-sacramentalism). More recently, existentialism has insisted that what matters is being true to my inner self, rather than being conditioned by history, mine or anyone else’s; many people, not only Rudolf Bultmann, have read Paul and Luther in that light. At a popular level, this mess and muddle shows up in a general sense that anything inward, anything to do with strong religious emotion, anything which downplays outward observance, must be striking a blow for the Pauline gospel of justification by faith. This is as worrying as it is absurd. All these movements are forms of dualism, where Paul believed in the goodness and God-givenness of creation, and in its eventual promised renewal. Together they reinforce that gnosticism which is a poison at the heart of much contemporary culture, including soi-disant Christian culture. It is time to turn away from all this; to rub our eyes, and look clearly at the path by which we and our culture have come.


Sunday, May 09, 2004

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

Kevin Johnson (Reformed) has responded on his blog, to my previous comments in the paper, Why Sola Scriptura is Self-Defeating & False if it Isn't in the Bible. This is my counter-reply. Kevin's 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.