Friday, November 14, 2008

Reply to C. Michael Patton on "Sola Scriptura", Part Two

By Dave Armstrong (11-14-08)

This paper responds to Michael Patton's Part Two of his multi-part series in defense of sola Scriptura. His words will be in blue.

* * * * *

Any attempt to defend a position is going to be met with three things: 1) reasoned rebuttal from those who are truly trying to understand yet disagree, 2) antagonistic reaction from those who see your argument as a threat to their favorite position and have an emotional reaction to it, and 3) misguided response from those who misunderstand and misdefine the position that you are attempting to defend.

I think that is a great summary of the different sorts of reactions one observes. I certainly hope I am in the category of #1. Unfortunately, in my experience, so often what I receive in reply to my own arguments is a combination of #2 and #3 or sometimes one or the other alone. Rarely does one get the courtesy of a #1 type reply, which is immensely frustrating for one like myself who loves to discuss and debate theology.

As part of my continued belief that people (including Protestants) don’t really understand sola Scriptura, in my initial post in this series [ link ], I distinguished it from four other views. I had hoped that this would serve to prevent reaction #3, but such was not the case.

Too bad. I agree with your definitions (though how you define the Catholic view is a bit of a caricature: I hope to show why as we proceed). I continue to assert, however, that sola Scriptura fails because it is insufficiently biblical and illogical, as well as unworkable in practice.

Nevertheless, here is another chart to help define my position. [see the image].

In my initial defining I distanced the doctrine from those who would claim that there is more than one infallible authority for the Christian (dual-source theory or sola ecclesia) and those who would claim that the Scripture is the sole authority for the Christian (solo Scriptura or nuda Scriptura). The doctrine of sola Scriptura is the belief that the Scripture is the final and only infallible authority for the Christian. In other words, it is the ultimate authority.

I agree. This was always my view as a Protestant, and as I critiqued it, since becoming a Catholic. Here, for example, is how I defined it in my book, A Biblical Defense of Catholicism, which was completed in 1996. The section on Bible and Tradition was probably completed in its initial draft, in 1991:
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, popes, and councils are not. [3]

[3] Martin Luther, On the Councils and the Churches, 1539; R. C. Sproul, "Sola Scriptura: Crucial to Evangelicalism," in James Montgomery Boice, ed., The Foundation of Biblical Authority, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1978), 109; Robert McAfee Brown, The Spirit of Protestantism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961), 67.

(p. 4)
Anyone can plainly see, then, that we agree on the definition, though this very day, sure enough, a Protestant accused me of not understanding what sola Scriptura is, and oddly asserted that Scripture shouldn't have to verify the claim of sola Scriptura.

That sola Scriptura utilizes other authorities is evident even in the heat of the Reformation as Martin Luther was called to Worms to give an account of himself. When asked to recant his controversial writings, after sleeping on it, Luther uttered these famous words in response:
Unless I am convinced by the testimony from scripture or by evident reason—for I confide neither in the Pope nor in a Council alone, since it is certain they have often erred and contradicted themselves—I am held fast by the scriptures adduced by me, and my conscience is held captive by God’s Word, and I neither can nor will revoke anything, seeing it is not safe or right to act against conscience. God help me. Amen.
Of course, the reasoning breaks down (as it always does where sola Scriptura is concerned) in Luther's unspoken premises. He assumes this; he doesn't provide a rationale for it. He reserves to himself the "right" to believe whatever he wants, based on his own interpretation, regardless of Christian precedent (which was evident in the very reason for his presence at the Diet of Worms: his departures from received orthodoxy). He has to be "convinced." He is the ultimate arbiter. Where in Scripture can one find such a radically individualist conception of the Christian faith? I can't find it anywhere.

Then there is the huge assumption involved in "evident reason" and "adduced by me": who decides what is "evident" or what is good reasoning vs. bad? Why, it is Luther! He figures that out. Tradition be damned if it disagrees with him. That's why I have argued in many papers that Luther was in effect a Super-Pope, with more power delegated to himself on arbitrary grounds than any Catholic pope ever had or dreamt of having.

And I have argued that every Protestant is his own pope. It reduces to a very troubling subjectivism and arbitrariness, to reason like this. It all starts here, at Worms in 1521 (thanks for noting it! Extremely relevant . . . ). This is the historic root of sola Scriptura (or possibly one could also say the Leipzig Disputation in 1519, where Luther was forced by his worthy opponent Johann Eck to logically fall back on this default position). Every heretic, of course, appeals to "conscience." The question is: what is a properly informed conscience?

Notice here that the “testimony of scripture” holds his conscience “captive.” Not only this, but it was the testimony of Scripture “adduced by me.” This is not meant to advocate isolationist interpretation, but to convey the personal responsibility Luther felt to produce his own convictions.

He may say it is not "isolationist interpretation," yet his own beliefs show that he had developed quite a few radically divergent interpretations (at least 50, in fact, as I have documented) even by the time of this Diet in 1521. Protestant sectarianism also follows from the principle. Protestantism started splitting right from the beginning because of this. The Anabaptists were quite separate. Luther fought with Carlstadt over iconoclasm. Zwingli and Calvin started a third branch and disagreed to some extent with each other. Melanchthon started departing from Luther on the Real Presence in the Eucharist and thus Lutherans formed another camp called "Gnesio-Lutheranism". The English "Reformers" were yet another faction.

The Calvinists and Lutherans started drowning Anabaptists (who are scarcely different from today's Baptists in most respects). Martin Luther could quite conceivably have advocated drowning Billy Graham as a "treasonous" heretic. It sounds incredible but it is not far-fetched or out of the question at all. Calvin called Lutheranism an "evil," etc. No one seems to have figured out the root of all this absurd division, however, which came from, in my opinion, the newly adopted principle of sola Scriptura, private judgment, and primacy of the radically individual conscience.

But notice that Luther did have respect for the authority of Popes and councils. He says, “I confide neither in Pope or in a Council alone” (emphasis mine). The key is the “alone.” Luther did confide in Popes and councils, but found them insufficient to have a final or independent voice in issues of faith.

He respected them insofar as they agreed with his self-generated Lutheran opinions. I've documented this myself in my recent book about Luther. I fail to see how it is a superior state of affairs to place the ultimate criterion of what one will accept as Christian truth on an individual, rather than on the collective, received wisdom of 1500 years of Church history and orthodoxy. There is no reason to do it and it leads to schism and chaos and theological relativism. Divide and conquer. It's the devil's victory. God likes unity and oneness.

Why? According to Luther, it is because they can and do err.

But why cannot we turn that back on him and say that he can err as well? What's more likely?: a council of several hundred bishops consulting together, promulgating a falsehood, or one mere man doing so? His reasoning redounds back upon himself. Yet we see how Luther acted whenever anyone dared to disagree with him. He was insulting and autocratic and haughty and vulgar. If one deigned to disagree with Luther on a serious matter, he usually stated that they were damned and no Christian at all, as he did, for example, with Erasmus, on the free will issue.

Tradition, according to Luther, has a subordinate authority to the Scripture, but is an authority nonetheless.

Of what use is "authority" if it is not binding? One might contend that this is foreign to the very meaning of the word. Police have authority because they can compel action and arrest people, against their will. The IRS has authority because it can collect income tax. One either complies or they are punished. Judges have authority because they can compel and sentence. Teachers have authority over students; so do school principals, who can expel students. Etc., etc., etc. It always means binding decrees and compulsion.

But then we get to Protestant human "authority" which is really no authority in the end at all, because Luther said "here I stand: and appealed to the abstract notion of "evident reasoning" and "clear Scripture." The individual decides in the end. The "authority" only has an advisory capacity. One can have great, immense respect for an advisor, but he is still that: an advisor: just as presidential advisor can always be overruled by the President. He gives advice: he has no power to dictate or compel. If a Protestant doesn't like something, he can always go to another denomination. What, in Luther's and sola Scriptura principles, can stop him? Nothing.

Notice also that “evident reason” is on Luther’s list of authority. Luther understood that reason has an important role to play in the binding of our conscience. In fact, it would seem that reason played a bigger role in Luther’s decision than tradition.

Yet Lutheranism is today but one of multiple hundreds of denominations. Even Protestants agree that sectarianism and denominationalism is a scandal; but they refuse to analyze what causes it in their ranks.

Finally, individual conscience itself plays an authoritative role in our lives. Luther believed that it is not “safe or right to act against conscience.”

Plenty of folks today, following this reasoning, get an abortion or a divorce. The Catholic Church says that one's conscience must be conformed with and formed by correct moral teaching, which comes from an authoritative source, not merely a subjective one.

Whether Luther would have attributed his statements here to the movements of the Holy Spirit upon our conscience or simply define conscience is the product of the adducement of authority is hard to say. What is important is that Luther was referring to individual responsibility.

Which produces a host of problems when it is set against corporate responsibility in the Christian Church, according to apostolic tradition . . .

Now, this one paragraph is certainly not sufficient to pin down Luther’s entire theology of authority—much less the entire reformed perspective—but it does serve to illustrate the founding balance sola Scriptura provides through the interaction of many sources of authority.

In principle, yes. In practice and in logical reduction it produces self-defeating consequences and much falsehood and misery.

Sola Scriptura is more than just a doctrine, but a road to responsibility before man and God. Luther could not in good conscience outsource his theology to any magisterial court, council, or successor to the seat of St. Peter. If he did, his convictions would not be his own.

Why, then, did St. Paul go around preaching the results of a Church council, guided by the Holy Spirit (Acts 15:28), to his hearers (Acts 16:4), if these convictions were not self-generated on their own? This is an absurd scenario, to make every conviction necessarily self-generated and felt within oneself with the utmost passion and conviction. That gets back to the deleterious historical influence of nominalism upon Luther, which takes us in another direction.

Luther was not into the “copy-and-paste” theology—the kind that had come to be mandated by ecclesiastical authorities of his day.

You mean like the Jerusalem Council and St. Paul's own rather stringent requirements for his flock?

He renewed and fostered a legacy which requires every man to seek for, wrestle with, and discover truth on their own, knowing that we will not be judged under the umbrella of a council, pastor, parent, family, or church, but by our own integrity of heart and mind.

Which has led to a host of problems, because, among many other things, it is a fallacy and a pipe-dream to expect every person to figure out everything in theology, without the aid of tradition. Why is it that in theology, all of a sudden, received knowledge has no true authority, whereas it does in virtually any other field of knowledge, whether scientific or philosophical, or mathematical, or in engineering, or biology, etc.? It's because Luther has introduced nominalistic subjectivity into Christianity. Certainty is now almost purely subjective, rather than primarily objective, and made one's own through the subjective impulse of man. This was a disastrous move, and one made on nothing, far as I can tell, except Luther's own subjective judgment. Luther subjectively decided that all theology should be subjective. But why should anyone accept that false notion?

Our beliefs are too precious to require any less. Sola Scriptura represents the legacy of Christ’s first words to two hopeful fisherman, “come and see.”

To the contrary, Christian belief is far too precious and important and valuable to be determined on mere subjective whims. There is an objective set of truths of Christianity, which is orthodoxy or the received apostolic tradition, that develops over time. This is an objective, concrete thing. It is what it is, whether a person "resonates" with it and completely grasps it or not. That's why Protestants, too, have creeds and confessions. What is an individual Protestant to do with those? Consider them advisory guiding posts only? Protestants have heresy trials within denominations also. So in fact they do act as if there are non-negotiable orthodox doctrines. But their principles lead to mutually contradictory aspects within Protestantism, as I will continue to demonstrate as we proceed.


Den said...

I appreciate the post, though I am a Protestant myself. It should be mentioned that anytime an assent to belief is being made, it is the individual's personal intellect, conscience and emotions that are at play. So while you repudiate the role of individualism in obtaining truth, the individual cannot be separated from the task. A person can only believe what he finds reasonable and compelling. The Roman magisterium simply assumes that either 1. Scripture is non-sensical; or 2. People are stupid.

Dave Armstrong said...

Hi Den,

The individualism we repudiate is not all individual use of reason (we all do that) but placing this individual decision above the corporate, traditional authority, making it the ultimate authority. Catholics believe in faith that God guides the Church to attain true theology, and we submit ourselves to that, which is ultimately (we believe) to God.

Catholic doctrine is fully in accord with Scripture at all points. This is the overwhelming theme of my own apostolate. Why would we have to be opposed to Scripture? We don't have to at all.

Nor do we think people are stupid. We think so highly of people that we incorporate all the millions of Christians who have lived in the past. Chesterton said that Tradition was the "democracy of the dead."