Sunday, October 19, 2008

Reply to C. Michael Patton on "Sola Scriptura", Part One (Definitions and Introduction)

This series of replies will respond to a lengthy, multiple-post defense of sola Scriptura, written by C. Michael Patton, on the blog Parchment and Pen. He describes himself as an "historic evangelical." He is not an anti-Catholic (which is one major reason why I am taking a considerable amount of time interacting with him, because substantive and cordial dialogue is therefore possible). We've had amiable interactions in the past, and I trust that they will continue in this exchange (and any guy who likes U2 is fine with me!). Here is the listing of the entire series:

In Defense of Sola Scriptura

Part One
Part Two
Part Three (Dual-Source Theory)
Part Four (Dual-Source Theory)
Part Five (Tradition)
Part Six (Apostolic Succession)
Part Seven (Canon)
Part Eight (Divisions)
Part 8B (Divisions)


Fallible Canon
Doctrinal Disagreement to the Glory of God
Why I am Proud to Be a Protestant

His words will be in blue.

* * * * *
“If it ain’t in the Bible, I don’t believe it.” Have you ever heard said that? How about this one: “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.” You might have that bumper sticker. Why not? Doesn’t this represent the glory of the Protestant Reformation’s elevation of Scripture to a position of the sole source of authority in the Christian’s life? Don’t these pithy statements represent the best of what it means to adhere to the doctrine of sola Scriptura?

No, they don’t. In fact they unfortunately represent a common misunderstanding of what sola Scriptura means.

That's right. I agree. Often, in Catholic circles (and even some Protestant ones), the very definition of the Protestant principle authority and rule of faith is misunderstood.

Where does one go for authority? In whom do we place our trust? The Church? Tradition? Scripture? The Pope? These represent important questions that are normally not understood outside the perspective of individual traditions.

And often within them as well. I wholeheartedly agree that it is an important, indeed a crucial, fundamental issue that every Christian must understand in order to properly function as a Christian with theology and an adherence to some particular form of Christianity. Good introduction to the discussion!

There are essentially five views that exist in the church today concerning the important issue of authority.

1. Dual-source theory

Belief that Tradition, represented by the magisterial authority of the Roman Catholic Church, is infallible and equal to Scripture as a basis for doctrine; the Church itself is the final authority in all matters of faith and practice since it must define and interpret Scripture and Tradition.
Adherents: Roman Catholics [see snazzy diagram for this]

I will argue in due course that, in effect, Protestant scholars, pastors, theologians, even radio preachers, serve as de facto "final authorities" (albeit not infallible ones) on a practical day-to-day level, because no book can do that by itself (especially not one as exceedingly lengthy and multi-faceted as the Bible). It always has to be interpreted. And one can, therefore, have an authoritative, infallible authority or a completely fallible one, contradicted by other ones within the same overall principle.

Notice that there is one complete deposit of faith, given by Christ to the Apostles. This one deposit is transmitted by two sources, written tradition (Scripture) and unwritten tradition. Notice also the dotted line as Scripture moves from the “Age of the Apostles” to the “Age of the Church.” This represents that the Scriptures were not complete in canonized form (all the books were not decided upon) until the fourth century. The Roman Catholic church believes itself responsible for the interpretation of both written and unwritten tradition. Because of their belief that the Holy Spirit protects the Roman Catholic church from error, they believe that they are the ultimate and final authority for the Christian. This is why this view is often referred to as sola ecclesia (”the church alone”).

But of course it is not sola ecclesia: rather, to be more accurate, it is a "three-legged stool" of Bible-Church-Tradition.

2. Prima Scriptura [see diagram]

Belief that the Body of Christ has two separate sources of authority for faith and practice: 1) the Scriptures and 2) Tradition. Scripture is the primary source for authority, but by itself it is insufficient for all matters of faith and practice. Tradition also contains essential elements needed for the productive Christian life.

Adherents: Some Roman Catholics (an alternate view)

This is not, again, describing the three-legged stool concept. Rather than try to present our beliefs through an inevitably (naturally) biased Protestant lens, wouldn't it be better to actually cite our authoritative documents? That would seem to be important at the outset, in order to properly understand one's opponent (I always seek to do this in dialogues): let them speak for themselves. What the Catholic Church teaches about authority can be found in:

1) Council of Trent: Decree Concerning the Canonical Scriptures (1546)

2) Vatican I (1870), Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith, Chapter 2: On Revelation

3) Vatican II: Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum) (1965)

4) Catechism of the Catholic Church, #74-141; especially #80, 84-86.

[I skip over his presentation of Eastern Orthodox notions of authority, which I am not at all sure is accurate, but I'll let Orthodox defend themselves]

4. Sola Scriptura [see diagram]

Belief that Scripture is the final and only infallible authority for the Christian in all matters of faith and practice. While there are other authorities, they are always fallible and the must always be tested by and submit to the Scriptures.

Adherents: Reformed Protestants/Evangelicals

Good description . . .

Notice that the only difference between the sola Scriptura view and the regula fide view is that in the sola Scriptura view tradition is not infallible. It is very important to realize that advocates of sola Scriptura would believe that there were two sources of authority for the first 300–400 years of the Church. Like the previous view, tradition would be understood as a summary of what was written in Scripture that had always been accepted by the universal Church. Unlike the previous view, this summary is not infallible.

This is where sola Scriptura starts to break down and is seen to be internally inconsistent (one of many such times, as I will show throughout). If the view is that Scripture is the final and only infallible authority, then we would expect to find in this same Scripture (which alone can provide us infallible Christian teaching, apart from the necessary, required authoritative interpretation of the Church), not only a plain statement of that principle (which is nowhere to be found), but also some clear indication that tradition is on a lesser scale of authority (i.e., not infallible) than Scripture. But I can't find that anywhere in the Bible (perhaps Michael will help me locate it as we proceed in this dialogue: I've searched for 17 years and have been unsuccessful every time). False Traditions of men are indeed condemned, but not tradition altogether. The Apostle Paul does not appear to make any differentiation. In fact, he regards tradition with such high and sublime authority, that he equates it with both the Word of God and the gospel:
1) Traditions "delivered" (1 Cor 11:2), "taught by word or epistle" (2 Thes 2:15), and "received" (2 Thes 3:6).

2) The Gospel "preached" and "received" (1 Cor 15:1-2, Gal 1:9,12, 1 Thes 2:9).

3) Word of God "heard" and "received" (Acts 8:14, 1 Thes 2:13).

4) Doctrine "delivered" (Rom 6:17; cf. Acts 2:42).

5) Holy Commandment "delivered" (2 Pet 2:21; cf. Mt 15:3-9, Mk 7:8-13).

6) The Faith "delivered" (Jude 3).

7) "Things believed among us" "delivered" (Lk 1:1-2).
Moreover, Paul draws no qualitative distinction between written and oral tradition:

2 Timothy 1:13-14 (RSV) Follow the pattern of the sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus; guard the truth that has been entrusted to you by the Holy Spirit who dwells within us.

2 Timothy 2:2 and what you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.
Paul even proclaims as binding teaching, the decision reached by the council in Jerusalem, which was reached in an infallible manner (with no Scripture involved at all) and the direct supervision of the Holy Spirit (Acts 15:28-29). He goes around with Timothy, passing along this tradition, along with his proclamation of the gospel:
Acts 16:4 As they went on their way through the cities, they delivered to them for observance the decisions which had been reached by the apostles and elders who were at Jerusalem.
But Protestants would have us believe that now there are no longer such councils, let alone ones that reach binding decisions in an infallible manner. There were in the early Church, but all of a sudden, the authoritative Church ceased to exist (most Protestants don't even believe in bishops, in the manner that they existed in the early Church), and it's the individual believer and his Bible (and the Holy Spirit). The Bible is the abstract final infallible authority, but the individual is the final authority in the practical sense, because no one has the authority to authoritatively interpret this infallible Bible. He decides, in the end. Protestants have many teachers and guides, but as Michael has stated, none are infallible. The individual can question each one. He can accept a denominational (non-infallible) authority, but that is only as good as it doesn't contradict another denomination, and who's to say who is right?

At this time, Scripture was in the process of being recognized (canonized) and the teachings of the apostles which had been passed on through word of mouth (tradition) was only reliable for the first 100 years (or so) of Church history.

On what basis does Michael conclude that "word of mouth (tradition)" was only reliable for 100 years? He can say that the apostolic age ceased around A.D. 100, and we agree (we also agree that public revelation ceased around the same time), but why would he make the additional conclusion that all non-apostolic tradition was unreliable? Where does that come from? The Bible itself doesn't state such a thing. The early Church fathers seemed to show no awareness of this sea change in authority. St. Ignatius of Antioch gives extraordinary authority to the bishops. St. Clement of Rome functions as a strong bishop (if not a pope) in his letters. Other early fathers (particularly St. Irenaeus, but many many others) explicitly teach apostolic succession and appeal to this as an unimpeachable authority, along with scriptural proofs, in combating the heretics.

So why do Michael and Protestants as a whole reject this? On what basis do they do so, except creating their own arbitrary, purely subjective, non-biblical tradition about the atomistic authority of the Bible in radical isolation, over against Church and Tradition that it acknowledges itself, and building their entire belief-system on top of this, even though it is a self-defeating principle from the outset? Even the Protestants' very Bible (except for seven deuterocanonical books that they arbitrarily removed in the 16th century, even though the early Church accepted them) was authoritatively proclaimed in its parameters (the canon) by the Catholic Church and Tradition. So they necessarily pass through the gate of an authoritative Church and tradition, to get to the place of sola Scriptura, which now proclaims that no traditions or churches are infallible. Makes a lot of sense, doesn't it? It's about as clear and coherent and consistent and plausible as mud . . .

The majority of Scripture (Gospels, Acts, and Pauline corpus which makes up at least 80 percent of the NT) was accepted as authoritative by A.D. 200, if not earlier.

I agree, but this doesn't alleviate the host of related Protestant difficulties, only briefly summarized above. It's a logically circular observation, anyway, because the hidden premise is that the Bible consists of those books declared to be canonical by an authoritative Church. The Protestant then has the benefit of hindsight. He then can say that "80 percent" of the books were widely accepted by a certain date. But that presupposes which books belong in the Bible in the first place . . . it is a vicious circle. The Protestant is accepting a non-biblical binding authority and not doing so at the same time. He'll proclaim one or the other back and forth and not even be aware of the glaring self-contradiction.

At the same time, the teachings of the apostles that were being passed on through word of mouth was becoming increasingly obscure and unreliable.

How does he know that? Sure, there were false prophets from the beginning, as Jesus and Paul both stated would happen, but that doesn't mean that, therefore, there could be no reliable sacred or apostolic tradition preserved.

Once the New Testament had been circulated throughout the Church, and once the canon had been recognized, the Church became totally reliant upon the Scriptures (both Old and New Testaments) for ultimate authority in all matters of faith and practice.

If that were truly the case, then why in the world wouldn't Scripture itself state such a thing, and make it perfectly clear, and logically coherent within a sola Scriptura paradigm? Instead, we see a ludicrous methodology whereby Michael must appeal to a completely arbitrary, man-made tradition, not found in Scripture at all (this idea that 400 years would pass and then sola Scriptura would suddenly become the new rule of faith) to establish this principle that the Protestant makes the foundation for the rest of his theology. The Bible alone is the sole final and infallible authority, yet it never states this, and such a notion has to be superimposed onto it from without. We have a word for that, and it is eisegesis: literally, "reading into" the biblical text one's prior predispositions.

The Catholic Church is indeed totally reliant upon Holy Scripture, and cannot contradict it in any of its teachings, but it doesn't follow that the Church cannot infallibly interpret this same Scripture. Then Holy Spirit was promised to the Church to lead it into all truth, and we actually see a plain example of that in the Jerusalem Council.

Scripture is always to be interpreted according to the accepted, albeit fallible, regula fidei of the early church as represented in the early creeds and councils.

Well, now Michael is talking like a Catholic, but of course, in so doing, he contradicts himself and what he claimed earlier in his same article. How can he say, on one hand, that only Scripture is infallible, and on the other that we must "always" interpret according to fallible early Church traditions? That's a "loophole" as wide as the Grand Canyon. Let's try it out. It won't take long for readers to see the difficulty Michael has just opened up (almost as a gift for a Catholic critic of his position such as myself):
1) The early Church unanimously interpreted baptism, as presented in Scripture, as the cause of regeneration. But Michael and many Protestants reject this. So if they are "always" to interpret Scripture according to the early creeds and councils, then they would agree that baptism regenerates, but most of them don't. So much for early tradition . . .

2) The early Church unanimously interpreted the Eucharist, as presented in Scripture, in terms of the Real, Substantive Presence of Christ. But Michael and many Protestants reject this. So if they are "always" to interpret Scripture according to the early creeds and councils, then they would agree that Jesus is Really, Substantively present in the Eucharist, but most of them don't. So much for early tradition . . .
I could go down a list of many such doctrines: infused justification, bishops, the perpetual virginity of Mary, her sinlessness, penance, the sacrifice of the Mass, the intercession of the saints, prayer for the dead, merit, purgatory (about which more was stated by the early Fathers than they wrote about original sin), and on and on. So this supposed honoring of early Church tradition soon goes by the wayside when we closely examine what the early Church actually believed (over against the Protestant myth of what it supposedly believed), and all of a sudden it is back to a more or less ahistorical sola Scriptura position: lip service to the early Church and tradition (just like their fathers Luther and Calvin tried to do), but not much of a correspondence of belief in reality. They agree with the fathers where Catholics also do, but where they disagree with Catholics, they also disagree with the fathers.

As an important and related sidenote, there has been much recent discussion among Protestants and Orthodox concerning the similarities in the two traditions’ view of authority. In fact, mutual consent has been attained and confessions of misunderstanding given from both sides. Notice here the agreed statement from The Dublin Agreed Statement 1984 involving Anglicans and Orthodox:
“Any disjunction between Scripture and Tradition such as would treat them as two separate ‘sources of revelation’ must be rejected. The two are correlative. We affirm (1) that Scripture is the main criterion whereby the church tests traditions to determine whether they are truly part of the Holy Tradition or not; (2) that Holy Tradition completes Holy Scriptures in the sense that it safeguards the integrity of the biblical message” (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1985), 50–51.
We agree with this, so it is a non-issue. I've already shown above, that the Catholic Church does not accept two separate sources of revelation, because we believe in ". . . sacred tradition and sacred Scripture. For both of them, flowing from the same divine wellspring . . ." The two always agree. They don't come from different places, but the same spring. Secondly, this was an agreement with Anglicans, who have a higher regard for Tradition in the first place, than most species of Protestants do. So it can hardly be totally applicable to Michael's own position, if he is in line with Calvin.

[passed over a Lutheran-Orthodox statement]

5. Solo Scriptura or Nuda Scriptura [see diagram]

Belief that Scripture is the sole basis and authority in the life of the Christian. Tradition is useless and misleading, and creeds and confessions are the result of man-made traditions.

Adherents: Radical Reformers, Fundamentalists, Restorationist Churches

I appreciate the distinction drawn, and it has some value in being more like traditional Christianity than these other forms of Protestantism, but it by no means alleviates all difficulties in the mainstream sola Scriptura position, which (when closely examined) also has severe difficulties leading to vicious logical circularity and self-defeat (oftentimes granting lip service to Christian tradition and the hallowed "early Church" but in the end dissenting from them). I've already demonstrated a bit of that above, and will be happy to show it many more times as we proceed.

This is not a formal position but a pejorative designation of a practical one. It represents the unfortunate position of many evangelical or fundamental Protestants who misunderstand sola Scriptura believing that it means that the ideal place for believers to find authority and interpret Scripture is to do so in a historical vacuum, disregarding any tradition that might influence and bind their thinking. Not only does this undermine the Holy Spirit’s role in the lives of believers of the past, but it is a position of arrogance, elevating individual reason to the position of final authority. It also disregards the fact that it is impossible to interpret in a vacuum.

All in all, a good statement, and one can hold this belief without falling into the absurdities of anti-Catholicism. But in the end, reason is still pretty much king in the sola Scriptura position, because the individual remains the final arbiter of what is true Christian teaching or tradition and what is not. Or if he appeals to an authority figure like Luther and Calvin, then we need only examine their position and ask why they are accorded such authority, when they massively contradict prior Christian history, and introduce a host of novelties, corruptions, heresies, and traditions of men? And of course the answer is that they have no inherent authority and have merely arbitrarily claimed it as their own. on their own. They all, of course, appeal to the Bible, but as soon as they contradict, we have a huge problem. Who to believe, and why? Simple appeal to an abstract principle of "Bible Alone" as final and ultimate authority is only "good" till it encounters its first internal contradiction.

Protestants have many authorities in their lives. Whether it be parents, government, the church, or traditions. The doctrine of sola Scriptura does not mean that we don’t have any other authorities or even sources of revelation, but that the Scripture alone is the final and only infallible source—it is the ultimate source.

Yes, and it is good for people to understand the position, but there are plenty of difficulties remaining to be resolved. I contend that they cannot be solved. It's impossible. They're insuperable. It's like a bucket with a hundred holes trying to hold water.

Just for good measure so that I cannot be accused of not trying to get in trouble, here is how I would chart some traditions and denominations. [see diagram]

Next, I will begin to give a more formal defense of sola Scriptura.

I look forward to it. Thanks for the opportunity of being able to critique your view and to present mine as a logically consistent, and more biblical and historically continuous alternative.

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