Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The Logical Circularity and Hidden Premises of Sola Scriptura and Private Judgment (with Brent Arias)

Brent Arias is a fellow Catholic (his words are in blue). This dialogue began after he commented on my arguments concerning private judgment. We then discussed the topic back and forth in order to arrive at new clarifications and insights. We are in essential agreement, but differ on some minor details. I found the discussion very stimulating and enjoyable. Hopefully, readers can benefit from it as well. Brent refers below to his own paper, Obey Your Leaders.

* * * * *

I think it would be good to "tidy up" this definition. For example, what appears to be your formal definition sounds a little circular:

Private judgment: the "private judgment" over against Church and Tradition.
It is circular only insofar as the actual belief system is circular (not as a result of how I framed the definition), since sola Scriptura itself is circular, in my opinion. So if one defines a thing that is logically circular, the definition would partake in the circularity, too, I suppose. But definitions are what they are, whether they are logically consistent or not.

...compare with...

Private judgment: contradicting the interpretive doctrinal authority established by God, i.e. the Church, by presumptuous appeal to Scripture.
This would be equally open to the charge of circularity, for one can (and should) immediately ask, "what is presumptuous appeal to Scripture?" (the hidden premise in this definition). The Catholic will always answer (as the Fathers in fact did): that which goes against the Tradition of the Church, thus it is circular again, because the same proposition is in the subject and predicate (in fact, even a portion of the content of the subject is in the predicate, not even the same thing:
Private judgment is contradicting the interpretive doctrinal authority established by God, i.e. the Church, appealing to Scripture in a way that is contrary to the interpretive doctrinal authority established by God, i.e. the Church.
In my paper I clarified "presumption" (without using that word) as contradicting past patriarchs or present apostles. I also gave plenty of evidence of who these apostles are...a subject which I've noticed my numerous Protestant sparring partners have painfully worked to avoid. Thus
I think the circularity has vanished. :)

I agree, of course, that it is presumptuous to interpret differently than the biblical writers themselves. But then, the interpretation itself is open to question by Protestants because they have no binding doctrinal authority in many areas to set the limits of interpretation. It's difficult to break through their own logic. It's almost as if one either accepts it or not. They see it as almost self-evident (which is a big part of the problem, trying to argue with them about it).

Appealing to Scripture against Tradition is only one aspect of the private judgment, whose essence is dissent against Church and Tradition. If I were to give a one-sentence definition at this point, it would be something like:

Private judgment is placing oneself (at least theoretically and potentially) in a position of final authority over against Church and Tradition if needs be (usually appealing to one's own interpretation of the Bible in so doing).
I like this definition of yours MUCH BETTER than the former one I found in your paper. And to add a small but gratifying twist, how about this:
Private judgment is placing oneself as final authority over against Church and SCRIPTURE, (usually pretentiously concealed as appeals to the latter).
For purposes of a definition, "pretentious" is too strong of a word because it is a strong value judgment, which is more relevant (if at all) and properly-used with regard to applications of definitions and theories built upon them. So I like mine better. :-)

Okay; I agree with your judgment on the word "pretentious," but I still would like to see Scripture worked into the definition in a more insightful fashion.

Hence, similar definitions in Arthur W. Pink:

. . . every Christian has the God-given right to think for himself, to form his own
opinion of what Scripture teach . . .

. . . this right of private judgment, and the duty of each person to determine for himself what God’s Word teaches, is categorically denied by Rome, . . .

The right of private judgment . . . means the right to form our own views from the Scriptures, to be in bondage to no ecclesiastical authority, to be subject unto God alone.

(see my paper, Catholic vs. Protestant Conceptions of the Meaning and Consequences of Private Judgment, for documentation)

As such, it is merely the individualistic aspect of sola Scriptura (which is properly defined as "Scripture is the ultimate authority and judge of Church and Tradition alike"). This is nothing more than what Luther did at the Diet of Worms, which is why I have always argued that the Protestant rule of faith, sola Scriptura, arguably began at exactly that point in time (Protestants themselves often regard this incident as the starting-point of the "Reformation" -- so my view is nothing all that new). Luther was (somewhat reluctantly) backed into this position by his Catholic opponents, such as Eck, and he stood firm and followed his logic through to its conclusion and consistently acted upon it: an individualism that could dissent from the whole Church in some instances.

The circularity and serious problems come when "perspicuity" of Scripture is assumed (as Reformed theologian G.C. Berkouwer discusses at great length). That is open to serious critique, even from within Protestant paradigms).

I still remember [Presbyterian polemicist] Tim Enloe saying "we can argue perspicuity of Scripture endlessly, but the fact remains that words mean something -- and you Catholics argue as if they don't -- the words of Scripture were organized to carry meaning to God's people." In later reflection I thought, "yes, words mean something -- except evidently the word 'perspicuity'".

Tim is engaging in the usual Protestant "either/or" mentality: either Scripture is perfectly clear or it is perfectly obscure. I don't have to make that choice or acknowledge the silly false dilemma (used as a stick to bash our supposed position which is grossly caricatured). I (and Catholics) can and do say that Scripture is largely and substantially clear but a teaching authority and limits to hermeneutics and exegesis are still desirable, necessary, and suggested in Holy Scripture itself (look at, e.g., the Jerusalem Council, or Peter's early sermons where he "officially" interprets Scripture, or the statements against "private interpretation," etc.).

When the individual appeals to Scripture against Tradition, one immediately must ask,

Why is your interpretive framework or grid superior to that of the traditional one which has many great spiritual minds and consensus behind it?
That is a troubling question indeed, and even Luther struggled mightily with the paradoxes inherent in it. Sola Scriptura is only as good as the private opinions or interpretations which form its content.

Well, you have much optimism about the intellectually discerned flaws of Sola Scriptura. Most Protestants figure that Peter set the standard "I must obey God, not men" - and Peter addressed this to the persecuting faction which, at that time, was "the church." Yes, this is a "simplification" from "simple minds" with disastrous results (as you well pointed out), and one that must be dealt with in a fashion that can be understood by the same simple minds that produced it. Thus of course, as you saw, my paper attempted to make something clear to the reader: Peter was speaking as an apostle -- you yourself are not an apostle. Get over it.

Good. I'm very optimistic about reason and the power of logic and analysis for the purpose of discerning truth, yes, but at the same time I am very pessimistic about human ability or willingness to understand this logic or to be willing to accept the consequences of it where it concerns some change they would have to make in their life as a result. That is one of the crosses of an idealist Socratic apologist like myself! :-)

The debate really reduces to (much as Protestants may protest against the stark contrast): "private, individual interpretation vs. corporate, traditional interpretation." The Bible, the Fathers, the Church, and Tradition condemn such private judgment and interpretation, but that's not good enough for Protestants; they have to retain it because the alternatives are Catholicism or Orthodoxy, and they don't like those systems.

So to a large degree, whether our arguments be short or long -- they will avail nothing to an unwilling mind. Any excuse is good enough when you are looking for one. And many Protestants -- as with so many people in general -- are looking for an excuse rather than truth.

But one must continue to argue as if the person "listening" IS willing to follow truth. The alternative is to do nothing or to adopt cynicism, which is itself a very unChristian attitude. This is one of the many paradoxes in Christian discussion (or apologetics and evangelism, at any rate): people often fight against spiritual and theological truth, yet it is our duty to present it to them charitably, to the best of our ability.

Protestants must fall back on themselves; hence sola Scriptura and private judgment. They don't like submission and they don't like Tradition (speaking very broadly), and so sola Scriptura was the arbitrary, circular, unbiblical tradition (another irony) that they substituted for it. The underlying reasons why Protestants believe in sola Scriptura are very simple (in my opinion): they don't like the alternatives and this is really their only choice, given that prior hostility. The alternative is unthinkable.

Let me say it again. I LOVE your newer definition over and above the one I originally saw in one of your links. And my "smug" version of your own definition I like a bit more -- but I don't think it contains anything critical that your definition lacks. Still though, I hope I can bait you with the (hopefully) irresistible idea of inserting "Scripture" as one of the items Protestants subject to their own personal "final authority."

How about this modification:

Private judgment is placing oneself (at least theoretically and potentially) in a position of final authority over against Church and Tradition if needs be, usually appealing to one's own (ultimately subjective and non-binding) interpretation of the Bible in so doing.
This avoids the insulting, judgment-laden word "pretentious" but still tries to get the Catholic point of what might also be called "arbitrariness" across.

I like it (and I think I said so before). I detect that you're not going to modify it further based on the suggestions I'm offering -- but I'm not troubled since I think it works and is, as I said, much better than the original.

Here is another possibility, centering on the Bible:

Private judgment is the separation of biblical interpretation from the "veto" or parameters set by the Church and Tradition, beyond which no exegete can go.
I like this one also. Although I'd like it more if the "veto" were left out (in favor of "parameters" alone), since "veto" sounds way too American to me.

It would still work without the word "veto," but I was trying to portray the idea of the authority of the Church to say "no." In using modern words, we can express ancient ideas in ways that "Americans" and others can understand. That is in accord with the urgings of Vatican II, so if something sounded "American," I would be following the Council's advice, as I am an American communicating to mostly same. :-)

You would make my day if you approved of this modification:

Private judgment is the separation of biblical interpretation from the boundaries set by the Church and Tradition, beyond which no exegete can go.
Sure, I can agree with that. To me, all these definitions are basicaly trying to express the same thing, using slightly different terminology. It's like the four Gospels . . .

I had already complained about "veto" language, and I think reference to "boundaries" covers your intent. And I think this definition embodies the "more insightful" characterization of "Scripture" in the equation -- that I said I was looking for.

Furthermore, I imagine you might agree that reference to "exegete" is a very important constituent - because someone like Moses, Elijah, or Paul the apostle are not to be classified as "exegetes" but rather instruments of God (the category Scripture calls "men of God") who hardly need appeal to the church. And indeed, none of the Reformation founders claim that special category (only Joseph Smith or Ellen Gould White have made such claims -- but those claims are dealt with in a different fashion than this "private interpretation" discussion).

But even then I don't like how easily this last definition gets opened to "well the early Church Fathers rejected iconography (which is true actually) -- they are the keepers of Tradition, so I also interpret Scripture in opposition to iconography."

Some Fathers did, some didn't.

I don't know of any fathers of the 3rd century or earlier, who embraced iconography/statues. I'm not even so sure there are any prior to the year 325.

But you are correct in taking the topic back to Scripture itself (as I did in a similar paper) because Fathers are fallible but Holy Scripture is not (and the Fathers themselves habitually appealed to Scripture over against the heretics). If our critics say, "well, this is the whole point; you gotta go back to Scripture," then we reply that we agree, as long as Scripture is not interpreted in avoidance with developed Tradition and the Church. The Church, after some centuries, condemned iconoclasm, after all. Protestants (if they know what is good for them) don't want to counter with a charge of "late traditions and novelties" because that will severely backfire on them if we start to examine many early Protestant innovations. The condemnation of iconoclasm took some time, but so did establishment of Christology as we know it, the canon of Scripture, etc. That's just how reality is.

There are perhaps four obstacles for Protestants in accepting Catholicism: ecclesiology, religiosity of sacred objects, soteriology, mariology. Thus, due to the percentages implied, addressing the "religiosity of sacred objects" is nearly synonimous with "Catholicism" in many minds. And given the importance of those four areas, it should be no surprise that my web site features articles concerning three of those four items: (http://panoply.home.att.net)

In fact, it is precisely because of problems like that, that I'm inclined to de-emphasize "tradition" from the definition. Did you notice I removed it from my alternate suggestion (here it is again):

Private judgment is placing oneself as final authority over against Church
and SCRIPTURE, (usually pretentiously concealed as appeals to the latter).
Well, I'm not a big fan of removing words simply because some people don't like them (except in a case such as "co-redemptrix" where there are wild misunderstandings and absurd hysteria). Tradition will come up anyway, so why not include it in the definition? We always have our work cut out for us. If we try to avoid certain "Catholic-sounding" words we only get accused of trying to pretend that we don't believe things or of watering-down the Catholic faith to make it more palatable to Protestant ears; i.e., of disingenuousness and lack of forthright honesty. I was recently accused by an Orthodox of caving into sola Scriptura because of my strong biblical emphasis in my apologetics. The charge was untrue (as I explained to him at length), but it plausibly could be true in some instances of Catholics thinking too much like Protestants.

I believe we should just state the thing outright, and then proceed to defend it. We will not avoid uproar and tempests. Jesus didn't; Paul didn't, so we will not, either. It's part of the game. The trick is always to "be all thing to all people" while not denying or minimizing our own views because they might be offensive. The cross was a stumbling-block to the Jews, the resurrection was to the Greeks, etc., but Paul still proclaimed them and took his lumps (including the derision of the "smart people": the philosophers at Mars Hill in Athens). Tradition is a stumbling-block to many Protestants, but it can't be avoided, since it is itself a biblical term, used many times (especially by St. Paul) -- and since they have their own traditions as well, whether conciously or not.

I think avoiding the very word "tradition" would be going too far in trying to appeal to the Protestant mindset. My approach (as in my first book) is to include it precisely because the Bible does so; to challenge Protestant "biblical consciousness" and expand their horizons to include something the Bible includes, whether they think it sounds "Catholic" or not. It is biblical! So whether they think it is Catholic is irrelevant! All agree that what is biblical is Christian and true.

And so what do I do? I go off and write a paper on Catholic authority (which you read) that makes not the slightest appeal to "Tradition" (or the necessity of "infallibility" for that matter), instead my paper was based completely on the inherent God-given authority of the apostolic successors (infallible or not).

But apostolic succession is a tradition, or part of Catholic Tradition (and a much disputed one), so it's just playing with words in the end, I think. Protestants dislike that concept as much as they dislike full-bodied Tradition, for it implies continuity and binding authority, and that is too "Catholic."

And here's the bottom line: when somebody asks me "yea, but how do you authenticate your supposed authoritative Tradition in light of Greg's paper?" I respond: where those bishops are you will find the right Tradition. They are the reification of that Tradition.

This backs up what I am saying. If it amounts to "Tradition" in the end, anyway, why avoid the word strictly for rhetorical purposes? Some Protestants will think you were thus engaging in a sort of "jesuitical sleight-of-hand."

Now perhaps you're thinking "but Brent, you're opening yourself to [James] White's
assertion that Catholicism is a system of 'Sola Ecclesia'".

No I wouldn't. That is his own false dichotomy. He can't comprehend a non-sola Scriptura position as anything but a sola ecclesia position. But that's neither logical nor biblical.

If it is true that Catholicism reduces to Sola Ecclesia, then it is equally true that Protestantism reduces to Sola Anthropos (Man Alone). The former is taught in Scripture (1Tim 3:15), the latter is condemned (Numbers 16, Jude 1:11).

I think that is a great response.

I think that "making oneself the ultimate arbiter of truth" is the unavoidable consequence of private judgment rather than its definition.

Now there is an interesting thought. I think this is where the logical circularity comes in. You say that is the consequence rather than the definition, but I don't see how any definition which truly reflects Protestant authority or "epistemology" can avoid having the premise also amount to just this, upon close examination (which entails logical circularity). People use words, but the words must be defined, and we find that when Protestant presuppositions (in this case, sola Scriptura, private judgment, and perspicuity) are examined in the sense of rigorous definition, they are inevitably circular. I've already explained how, above. I'll present it now in a "logical flow chart way":

1. Sola Scriptura is the idea that Scripture is the final authority (over Church and Tradition). And this Scripture is clear in the main and sufficient for salvation for the individual, and able to be understood in the main by any individual with rudimentary education.

2. But whose interpretation of Scripture? One can't merely say "the biblical view" without immediately coming up against questions of hermeneutics and exegesis and relative strengths of particular views on particular passages with regard to any given doctrine under dispute.

3. So, then, sola Scriptura inevitably reduces to (for example):

A) "Luther's and Anglicans' and Methodists' clear biblical interpretation of (infant) baptismal regeneration."

B) "Calvin's clear biblical interpretation of non-regenerative (infant) baptism as a "sign and seal."

C) "The Anabaptists' and Baptist's clear biblical interpretation of non-regenerative, purely symbolic adult baptism."

D) "The Church of Christ's and Disciples of Christ's clear biblical interpretation of regenerative adult baptism."

E) "The Quakers' and Salvation Army's clear biblical interpretation of no necessity for baptism at all."

It is only as good as any individual or denominational biblical interpretation. No one can deny this, for no Protestant can tell us why their interpretation of the Bible must be binding rather than the other guy's, from within their sola Scriptura framework. To do so would be to repeat the same "error" which they oppose: some "tradition" against the "clear" witness of the Bible.

4. Therefore, sola Scriptura is completely circular:

A) "Scripture is the final authority" always reduces to (per the above): "My, or my denomination's ultimately arbitrary, tradition-based interpretation of the Bible is the final authority."

B) This, in turn, is simultaneously the definition and prerogative of private judgment, and the entire structure is circular and arbitrary, because it maintains a pretense of being divorced from history and strictly "biblical" when in fact men's biases and traditions cannot possibly be avoided.

C) The circular result, then, might be described as: "men's (often) a-historical traditions are the final authority over historical traditions of the Church (based on unbroken apostolic succession)."

D) One tradition is thought to be superior to another, but on woefully inadequate and wholly arbitrary grounds because it is insufficiently rooted in the history of the "mainstream" Christian Tradition.

5. Thus, sectarianism and doctrinal contradiction are inevitable as a result, and this is, in fact, what we have observed throughout Protestant history.
You used the word "pretense" and "biblical" in the same sentence. In short, you and I are both seeing the Protestant appeal to Scripture as pretentious.

Well, not exactly. If you read very carefully, you'll see that what I regarded as "pretentious" was not merely the appeal to Scripture (which we do and which the Fathers also did), but the biblical appeal divorced from history and construed as involving no further biases and traditions of one's own. This is not ALWAYS the case with Protestants.

I was appealing to history as a Protestant 20 years ago when I was refuting Jehovah's Witnesses, and arguing that they were wrong both on Scriptural grounds and on the grounds that the early Church and the Fathers did not teach Arianism, and that it was a late novelty. So even as a good evangelical Protestant, I was pretty much arguing the way the Fathers would: primarily using Scripture to refute the error but also claiming that novelties rejected by the Church Universal are untrue. That's why I think "pretentious" in the definition itself is too broad. We must clarify exactly what we regard as pretentious in how (certain, or even many) Protestants argue.

The basic fallacy underlying all this (at least in the minds of many Protestants, if not in their most able proponents) is that Scripture is clear in and of itself and able to function as a rule of faith in and of itself, and that no preexisting grid of hermeneutics or denominational traditions are present when adopting "Scripture Alone" over against Church and Tradition.

Actually, I'm not too sure that this is a faulty premise. I mean, I'm not convinced that it is a "premise" in the Protestant juggernaught. I think they often ostentatiously propose it as a premise in a polemical format, but I think psychologically it is more of an excuse and smoke screen than anything.

Here I observe the same problem I saw in your use of the word "pretentious" -- this is too loaded and judgmental. If we start describing fundamental Protestant premises and entire rules of faith as "smoke screens" and "excuses" and descend into psychology rather than theology and ecclesiology then we will cut off meaningful dialogue. I don't believe this about Protestants, at bottom (and I need only think back to myself, when I was a sincere, committed, evangelizing and "apologetic" Protestant). I think they (like virtually anyone who accepts any error) accept certain false ideas quite sincerely and have not properly thought through the logical and concrete consequences of them -- particularly how the false premises have led to the problems inherent in Protestantism, such as sectarianism and lack of authority with any "punch."

The Bible itself also presents the authority of Tradition and Church in no uncertain terms, so sola Scriptura involves the following ridiculous, surreal state of affairs:

Bible (which includes and sanctions), the authority of Church and Tradition + ultimately arbitrary private judgment and interpretation.


The Catholic (or Orthodox) Church and Apostolic Tradition (itself based on the material sufficiency of Scripture and in no way opposed to Scripture), able to be traced back historically and demonstrated by independent means.

Or, more simply:
(Individualistic often a-historical notions of) Bible + Church + Tradition.


(Historical and corporate notions of) Bible + Church + Tradition.

Individualism and a-historicism are the key differences again, and this is the main aspect of private judgment.

Brent's earlier definition:

private judgment: contradicting the doctrines of the apostolic successors by
presumptious appeal to the writings of the first apostles.
This gets into deep waters of doctrinal development. It's an interesting statement. I think it is another way of saying Church and Tradition vs. the Bible." It also has a danger, however, of sounding too "anti-biblical," as if Tradition is superior to the Bible because it is placed in
contradistinction to it. In other words, it is a definition with a decided Catholic slant to it, that might appear as engaging in the same "pitting against" that Catholics are opposed to ("Bible-writing apostles vs. successors to the apostles").

Okay, how about this:

private judgment: positioning oneself as final authority over Church and
Scripture, then contradicting that combined authority, usually disguised
pretentiously as appeals to Scripture.
That gets back to my objections to "pretentious." Maybe you'll like my refined definition, where I incorporated your suggestion . . .

Again, where is "tradition" in that definition? Its implicit. You can't have "Church and Scripture" without Tradition. And if I hadn't mentioned it before (this is my second night working on this response to you), I think omitting explicit mention of Tradition also has the benefit of holding Sedevacantists at bay in addition to Protestants.

I don't think it can be avoided. The whole question of authority (on both sides) has to do with the relative positions of Bible, Tradition, and Church. Therefore, you can't admit any of these three factors from the definition, if it is to be a workable and useful definition.

Protestant apologists such as Keith Mathison would agree with the "private judgment" definitions and then simply state that Protestantism, not Catholicism, defines and constitutes "the Church."

I find that Protestants are severely threatened by this discussion because it is a close scrutiny of some of their most cherished beliefs. If they accept the Catholic point of view on authority, it follows almost as a matter of course that they would have to convert. The stakes are very high. So I've always found them to be very squeamish and evasive concerning this subject.

The definition of the Church is a different discussion; however, in this context, where historical precedent is involved, the Protestant will always wind up on the losing end of the argument, for their notion of "Church" cannot be sustained for a second from history. This is one reason why they are so a-historical in tendency. What rational person can argue that congregationalism, for example, was the normative form of Church government throughout Church history, or that episcopacy was not the norm, and was an "unbiblical" system of governance?

If "Church" isn't defined with reference to history (or to all the biblical data, for that matter), then it merely reduces to a private and arbitrary opinion, and the argument becomes circular once again ("Calvin's conception of the Church" vs. Luther's and Zwingli's and Menno Simons' and Wesley's and the Anabaptists'," etc.). Which to choose and why? But we can easily trace our conception back through history. Sure, we dispute the papacy with the Orthodox, but even they do not deny Petrine and Roman primacy of honor in some manner, which is much better than Protestant a-historicism and frequent anti-Catholicism.

Of course I took the "biblical" route because many Protestants won't listen unless you are constantly quoting Scripture -- or they won't listen if they think you are just engaging them with philosophy.

Yes. of course. But this question, by its very nature, must include history and some logic because sola Scriptura by definition involves a certain rejection of or antagonistic stance towards an authoritative Church and Tradition. Therefore, those things have to be talked about in discussing it. As much Bible as possible ought to be brought in (that is my theme in my website and books and papers), but if a Catholics gets too "Bible only" they will wind up playing the Protestant game and accepting distinctively Protestant assumptions. I was myself charged with being too "Bible-Only" by an Orthodox fellow:

I think the risk is little to none that Catholics would consequently "accept their assumptions,"

I don't, because Catholic liberalism is a case of rampant adoption of liberal Protestant assumptions. I see this as a constant danger. Either we start thinking like them to be approved culturally or to be approved theologically. It's always a factor, sad to say. And many converts bring Protestant thought into Catholicism and don't adequately get rid of it.

but certainly Protestants attempt to bring in history -- especially when they feel they are losing the biblical battle -- and thus history is important too. However, I'm happy to leave my paper as a "bible only" testimony for the sake of those Protestants WHO WOULD NEVER appeal to history AND keep to keep out history FOR THE SAKE of brevity (I already get complaints from Protestants that it is too long). In short, I don't assume my paper has done all of the work -- but I do believe it has done a monster portion of it (and I might add -- a portion much larger than what a Protestant offers in his own defense of Sola Scriptura).

I guess it would be entirely the right approach for the extreme Bible-Only types, if that is the particular audience you are trying to reach.

Uploaded by Dave Armstrong on 28 January 2004. Added to blog on 21 November 2006.

No comments: