Sola Scriptura: An Epilogue

Eamonn Clark, STL

I appreciate the reply to my latest post on Sola Scriptura from Nemo. This long-delayed post will be my last public response – and I will do so via the method called “fisking,” my comments in bold, with a little outro to close. Go here to see the whole post (some introduction and endnotes). See my previous posts here, here, and here.

START

Clark made an objection to sola scriptura, which is commonly raised by Roman Catholics, as I found out just recently. It goes like this, if I understand correctly: a) the Scripture started out as individual books written by different authors centuries apart, b) there is no way of knowing which books belong in the Scripture c) unless there is an authority outside the Scripture that can infallibly determine what constitutes Scripture, d) ergo the infallible authority of the Catholic Church.

Yes, that is more or less the way the argument goes, as what else would determine the canon? In my last post, I showed that the only alternatives are that we are left with our own judgment, that some totally arbitrary measure exists (sola Luther?), or the even worse and much weirder hypothesis of a “fallible collection of infallible texts.” Another option would be that history didn’t happen – as we will see, the historical reality of the formation of the canon is relevant here.

For starters, regarding (d), even if we grant that an authority outside the Scripture is necessary to determine what constitutes Scripture, it doesn’t follow that the magisterium of the Catholic Church is such an authority. I get the impression, rightly or wrongly, that Roman Catholics are attacking sola scriptura as if it were a zero-sum game, and they would establish the authority of the Church simply by knocking down the authority of the Scripture.

Not quite – one needs to recognize the Voice of the Shepherd behind all of it. One is simply bound, by the operation of the kind of sufficient grace which touches all rationally active minds, to know that the Christ’s truth and authority subsists in the Catholic Church. One way to see this is through the history of the Scriptural canon – it did not fall from the sky. If I think that the old woman at the supermarket infallibly determines the canon, then I have a problem. Why would it be any different for, say, some disgruntled Augustinian friar named Martin Luther? (Then there are other claims too, such as with the Ethiopian tradition, but we leave that aside.) So history is the key here. There are PLENTY of ways to see that the Catholic Church has the authority which She claims – the plethora of miracles, the favors of the many major Marian apparitions (especially Fatima, given its enormous audience and recent occurrence), the coherence and stability of doctrine, the proliferation of that doctrine across the Earth… But the canon is its own argument, based in the facts of history (but not thereby exhausted, as one must still see with the eyes of faith).

But that is far, far from the case. From the epistemic perspective, the same questions would remain: How do we know that (the magisterium of) the Church is infallible? What constitutes the magisterium and who decides that infallibly? Does it speak with one voice or many? How do we know that the teachings of the magisterium are interpreted correctly? The list goes on.

These are presented as very challenging questions, but they are relatively straightforward to answer. We know the Church is infallible by faith, evidence of which is contained in all the things I just mentioned. One ought to be inclined toward trusting the Church as God’s infallible mouthpiece just as one is inclined toward Christ – flesh and blood does not reveal, and yet it also does prepare one to make the jump. St. John Henry Newman called this sense of the convergence of evidence which doesn’t quite demonstrate the truth of the Catholic Faith the “illative sense.”

What constitutes the magisterium, in the relevant sense here, is: the Pope, or the whole college of bishops teaching together with the Pope. Who decides that infallibly is and could not be other than God. We can see here that Nemo is struggling with the relationship between evidence, faith, and authority. In the end, it is up to one’s own mind to see, and that’s that, and yet we also are not entirely alone in our responsibility for knowing – we have help through others. What is really of faith cannot be demonstrated by “flesh and blood,” it must be revealed from above, but often using “flesh and blood,” as with the Incarnation itself, but also through the visible hierarchical structure of the Church. The Pope is, in a sense, the Church’s babysitter – like Aaron was for the Hebrews while Moses was up on Sinai. Regardless of how well he does, he has the authority (cf. Saul’s reign over Israel, the Pharisees and Jerusalem, etc.).

The magisterium, in this sense, speaks with one voice, and could not speak otherwise. (I have written more about the different senses/uses of the word “magisterium” elsewhere on these pages.)

Nemo’s final objection once again shows that he is trying to grapple with the reality that, at the end of the day, one cannot actually have another take the place of one’s own mind in the relationship between evidence, faith, and authority, but one also isn’t responsible for everything by himself – we have a visible, exterior structure which disposes us to the operation of interior invisible grace. We can have intelligent people help us to understand the teaching of the Church, and we have the exterior authority of the Church itself as expressed in Her definitive doctrines, but one must still see with the eyes of faith for themselves after encountering the reality of dispositive visible effects of God’s grace with the senses. To drive this home, I could take many of these same objections and apply them to Christ. How do we know He speaks infallibly? Who decided that? How do we know we are understanding what He is saying? Actually, this last one is the whole theme here – He evidently wanted us to have a very serious kind of help. He did not leave us orphans. Nor do we need to be able to read in order to have faith – something which Sola Scriptura indirectly implies. The peasant girl in 9th century Gaul simply knows, “The old man in the funny hat has learned the true Faith and is responsible for instructing me so that I can save my soul,” and that’s about all she needs.

Second, regarding (c) the canon. If we define canon as a definitive collection of books that are recognized by believers as Scripture, then what constitutes the canon changes over time, at least from a historical perspective. For example, in the Gospels, Jesus constantly refers to (what we now call) Old Testament books, namely, the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms (Luke 24:44-45), which the Gospel authors designate collectively as “the Scriptures”, or simply “the Scripture”, emphasizing its unity. The canon then did not include the New Testament books which were written later. By the fourth century, the majority of the 27 books of the New Testament have been recognized as Scripture, as evidenced by extant New Testament manuscripts and the writings of the Church Fathers. There is no evidence that such recognition resulted from a Church Council. It is likely that the canon emerged organically through a grass-roots networking process, independent of any central authority.

I’m a little shocked that Nemo would make the objection that the existence of Scriptures before Christ and the apostolic age would somehow undermine the possibility of more Scripture. Since the fullness of God’s revelation is the Incarnation of His Son, there will be a clear division among the texts wherein God foretells the coming of Christ and the texts wherein God teaches about what happened during Christ’s earthly life and ministry. Turns out that the 430 year gap between Malachi (the last prophet of the Old Testament) and Christ’s public ministry maps onto the 430 years of Israel’s enslavement in Egypt. It was time for God to speak again.

Nemo then jumps to the 4th century. He’s right to point out that the canon had basically been settled by then. He neglects to say HOW. It was, of course, the project of Pope St. Damasus I, whose old house I coincidentally have been doing some of my research in (it is here) as there are some curial offices there in the palazzo surrounding the church. This was partially in response to confusion over what belonged in the canon which occurred at the end of the 2nd century, because of the heresiarch Marcion. But without going into details, there was still some slight lack of clarity over the so-called “Deuterocanon” throughout the medieval period and into the 15th century. However, there was no problem significant enough to warrant any action more forceful than the council which Damasus held in Rome in 382, where he published his list. This mild anxiety (but no “crisis”) was evidently on account of the prologue to the the Liber Regus (the “Kingdom Books” – 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2Kings), written by Damasus’ private secretary, St. Jerome. (Jerome evidently held reservations about Damasus’ list and let people know it. Maybe Damasus was fine with it – who knows… It was 9-10 years after the Council of Rome in 382 under Damasus I.) It was the Council of Trent (an ecumenical council, the highest kind of teaching authority on account of the sort of papal sanctioning involved) which “canonized” the list which we have today – although the same list had been put forward by Damasus some 1,200 years earlier, and also just the century before at the Council of Florence (another ecumenical council), but only using the word “inspired” and not “canon”/”canonical.” This was in response to the activity of Luther, who threw out some books which were especially inconvenient for his ”theology.” This, together with the invention of the printing press, heightened the urgency for a stronger position on the canon than did the shift from baskets and scrolls to the codex in the 1st century. The Jews and first Christians didn’t have books at all, they had scrolls which could be put into one basket and then another. The codex forced the question of what would be included and what excluded. The printing press meant that not just the clergy and scholars but everyone in the world could soon have a “Bible” – so it became absolutely imperative to know what that meant. In fact, we see here a stroke of God’s Providence. Had Luther not tampered with the list given by Florence, then we may still be left without the list of inspired texts which Trent gave us, and the problem would perhaps have grown deeper and thornier than it already is.

Third, a few more words regarding the self-authentication of the Scripture (b). Jesus says, “It is written in the Prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me” (John 6:45). And “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” (John 10:27) It is interesting that, with the advance of technology, voice recognition software can uniquely identify the speaker from a voice recording, as the voice of each person has a unique digital signature. If I may use another analogy, the Scriptures bear the seal of the Lord, just as signet rings are used by ancient kings to authenticate their royal decrees. All believers, without exception, have been and will continue to be taught by the Lord, and have the right and obligation to hear His voice and follow Him.

Once again, we see Nemo wrestling with the evidence-faith-authority paradigm. Yes, we do need to recognize the Voice of the Shepherd, but to what degree? As I said in an earlier post, St. Mary of Egypt was taught by God without study. Are we held to that standard? Are we all bound to know what is Scripture simply by being sufficiently holy, or intelligent, or both? No – rather, we ought to see the all the other things which point towards the Divine origin and thus the veracity of the Catholic Faith and go from there. God wants us to see the greatest effect of His Incarnation – the Church, His Bride – and then read about Him in the light of what the Church offers to us for our instruction. He does not want us arguing whether 1 Clement or The Shepherd of Hermas or the various silly Gnostic “gospels” are inspired documents, OR THE DEUTEROCANON.

Lastly, if we define the Canon as a complete collection of books inspired by God for the salvation of His people, then the Canon is fixed from the foundation of the world. But, one might ask, is what we have today the whole Canon? It is possible that some inspired books have become extinct, e.g., Paul’s letter to Laodicea (Colossians 4:16), just as some species God created has become extinct through the long lapse of time, and just as His prophets died after they had served the purpose of God in their own generations. We can only answer (in faith) that God has preserved the canon through history to accomplish His purpose, so that the canon we have is sufficient and necessary for salvation, and the lost books, if any, do not subtract from the integrity of the canon, nor their inclusion make the canon redundant in any part.

Here we have to say that God knows what He wants included and certainly made sure that it was in fact included. That’s it. Those, and those alone, would then carry the character of “inspiration,” as inspiration is only really a useful term in theology when it refers to “those books contained in Scripture.” Other kinds of authority and prophecy surely exist, but the special thing about being inspired is precisely that it is part of Scripture.

END

Well, thus endeth the discourse. From here, we would no doubt continue to explore what “the Church” is, how the virtue of faith works, what the process of inspiration involves, or drill into what exactly the status of the Deuterocanon was in the middle ages, and so on, but this takes us quite far afield of the question. I do other posts on some of that stuff. But for any curious Protestants reading, you might start with this good article on apostolic succession and go from there.

Sola Scriptura – a Conclusion

Eamonn Clark, STL

After two previous posts on this topic, I am about ready to wrap it up. My first post, my most popular ever, still retains its value. I did a follow up post responding to a critique, and there is a response to that post. Unfortunately, that second response was intellectually lazy, and, seemingly, just a cop-out which amounted to – “he made some straw men, but I won’t say how, it’s too hard.” Well… Okay then. Disappointing – and also revealing. Read for yourselves to judge and see if that’s really the case. I tried to be quite fair. Anyways, consider this my final word on the matter.

The problem of canonicity is probably the most basic problem for Sola Scriptura. That is, how do we know what books are Scripture in the first place? I submit that there are only 4 ways to answer this question, period.

  1. Scripture is not a rule of faith, so it doesn’t matter (held by non-Christians)
  2. One is bound to be personally wise/holy enough to know intuitively which texts are Scripture (held by nobody)
  3. We have a fallible collection of infallible books (a deeply problematic pretzel of a position held by major Protestant scholar R. C. Sproul – again, how do we know that these books are infallible in the first place, and why would God leave some infallible texts outside our use and possibly allow some fallible texts to show up in what we call the Bible?)
  4. There is an authority external to Scripture which determines what is Scripture and what is not, thus undermining the position that Scripture alone is the entire rule of faith, as if an authority can define what is contained in Scripture, it follows that it is a parallel teaching authority (held by Catholics, Orthodox, etc., and, ironically, in practice held by Martin Luther, who presumed to create his own canon, prompting Trent’s definition of the canon)

With regard to #4, one would struggle to explain how and why an authority external to Scripture would exist solely to define the canon and not also be able to interpret its contents without error. It just does not sound very much like the God of Christianity: “Here’s a book, good luck.” And here we go into the problem of anarchy, which I described in my first post… each is left to his own devices, with many people with contrary positions claiming the support of Scripture and even that they are being instructed from within by the Holy Spirit that “x” is true and not “y.” It’s like we’ve returned to the time of the Judges, when “there was no king in Israel, and everyone did what was right in his own mind.”

That’s it. If anyone can show me how this point – just this one – falls apart, I will return to this topic. But that’s about all I have to say on it. For more, see here.

Apolog-etc. #3: Sola Scripture – a Reprise

Eamonn Clark, STL

I’ve done a few posts like this before (here and here), where I respond to other bloggers, but it is not normal for me. Please let me know in the comments or by “like” if you enjoy this sort of post. They are a little more polemical and therefore possibly of less lasting relevance, but hey, I need to keep the readership interested!

So one of my most popular posts ever is a post on Sola Scriptura. For some reason, in 2021 (years after it was posted) it got well over 5,000 hits. It still seems to get consistent hits on the daily. Anyway, it lists 7 reasons why the doctrine of “Scripture alone” is problematic. In brief, these problems are that Sola Scriptura is:

  1. Anarchic (no infallible interpreter, so everyone is a “little pope,” leading to countless divisions in doctrine and praxis)
  2. Innovative (in the bad sense, it is a “new doctrine” not from the apostles)
  3. Historically impractical (constructing and defining the Biblical canon took time, so how could it be that one must base faith on what did not yet exist?)
  4. Conceptually impossible (what counts as Scripture can’t be defined by Scripture, that is circular reasoning)
  5. Arbitrary (why not “popes alone”?)
  6. Self-Contradictory (a man, Luther, teaches the doctrine of Sola Scriptura – authoritatively?)
  7. Contrary to Scripture (i.e. 2 Thess. 2:15, 1 Tim. 3:15)

You might be able to get around one or two of these. But when presented together, there is quite a bit of weight to the argument.

Let’s take a look at a response that I got (a few years ago) and go through it. In so doing we will tease out some subtleties to the arguments given above. But, alas, we will also conclude that Sola Scriptura is untrue.

My comments in bold. Some formatting adjusted, some content skipped. Go read the whole thing here.

IN DEFENSE OF SOLA SCRIPTURA

“All Christians believe that the Scripture is inspired by God, literally ‘God-breathed’. Protestants also believe that the Scripture is ‘self-authenticating’, as explained by 2nd century Church Father and philosopher Justin Martyr thus:

THE word of truth is free, and carries its own authority, disdaining to fall under any skilful argument, or to endure the logical scrutiny of its hearers. But it would be believed for its own nobility, and for the confidence due to Him who sends it. Now the word of truth is sent from God; wherefore the freedom claimed by the truth is not arrogant. For being sent with authority, it were not fit that it should be required to produce proof of what is said; since neither is there any proof beyond itself, which is God. For every proof is more powerful and trustworthy than that which it proves;
Justin Martyr, On the Resurrection, Ch. 1

As the word of God, the Scripture derives its authority from God, not from man. Therefore, the Scripture is not subject to the proof or approval of man.”

Self-authentication is a very interesting claim. In some sense it is true. I recall to mind the beautiful encounter between Zosimus and St. Mary of Egypt in the desert beyond the Jordan, where she indicates that, despite never having studied the Scriptures, the Word edifies of its own power, giving her words the graced character which they possessed. This is true. However, the question is not whether the Voice of the Shepherd is ultimately able to be recognized within what is authentically Scripture, and much less whether God is trustworthy (of course He is) – His voice is recognizable in texts, by those with the greatest sensitivity to the Holy Spirit – but the question is rather what the mode is of the regula fidei, the rule of faith. In other words, how does God actually want people to know in general what is Scripture and what is not? Luther, for example, threw out a few books which were widely considered Scripture for over 1,000 years, but which were inconvenient for his doctrine. Trent said, “No.” Who is right? But there is the deeper problem, which is that, in actual fact, the Church considered canonicity a major issue from the early days, not only in affirming or denying texts from the apostolic age, but also clarifying that newer texts, like the apocryphal “Gospels” and other Gnostic writings, were not from God. In so doing, the Church “as such” exercised an important ministry for the salvation of souls. To say otherwise is to say that the debates over whether to include Hermas or 1 Clement – or even the Gospel of John, which was looked at with some suspicion in some places – were vain exercises, albeit with pious intentions… the masses ought to just be more spiritual and know for themselves, apparently. We are evidently all bound to be as holy as St. Mary of Egypt. But that is not the case, as evidenced not only by the historical fact of the crises over canonicity being allowed by God to occur within the Church in such a way as to seem important with an authoritative conclusion, but also by His own charge to the Apostles to teach in His Name in the Great Commission. This is a theme to which we will return as it shows that the Voice of the Shepherd is not a hidden voice, it is like a city on a hill, a lamp on a lamp stand, found within a visible, living, unified symbol of authority through which God Himself speaks. That is the mode by which the regula fidei comes to us, and so that is what needs to be recognized by the one who would follow Christ, not whether or not 1 and 2 Maccabees are inspired texts (etc.). However, now we turn to the signs of what counts as Scripture on the author’s reckoning. Maybe we don’t need to be that pious or intelligent in order to know what is Scripture and what is not?

“While we cannot prove divine authorship of the Scripture for the reason mentioned, we can find plenty of evidence of it. In other words, there are distinguishing characteristics that set the Scriptures far above other writings of men. When the early Church Fathers were challenged on this point, they gave the following evidence in support of their belief:

  1. The antiquity of the Old Testament, Moses in particular, predates all the ancient Greek and Roman writings.
  2. The prophesies in the Scriptures (both OT and NT) have been and are still being fulfilled.
  3. Jesus, manifested as the Son of God through the Resurrection, confirms the Old Testament, which prophesies about Him.
  4. The lives of people all around the world have been transformed for good through the teaching of the Scripture. This is unprecedented and unparalleled in history.”

No problem here; in itself, this is correct. However, it is hard to see how this would solve the problem. For instance, there are no prophecies to speak of in 2 John, or 1 Timothy, or many other texts of the New Testament. There was not yet time either for contemporary texts to have had the sort of influence we would expect of authentic Scripture, but once the arch-heretic Marcion put out his canon in about 140 AD, there was a crisis that needed to be resolved. And, just in general, these criteria go towards verifying as Scripture a collection of texts already considered as Scripture rather than serving as a rule for determining what ought to be so considered. Unfortunately, we aren’t given the citations from which these points are drawn, so the commentary stops here. But the problem very much seems to remain.

“Given that God is the author of the Scripture, it follows that He is also the ultimate Interpreter, without whom no man can comprehend the Scripture.”

Granted. But this does not mean that God cannot allow others to participate in that authority somehow.

“Christians believe that God dwells in each and every believer in the Spirit. This indwelling Spirit acts as an interpreter of God’s Word, and guides the believers into all truth.”

There is a lot to talk about here. I will limit my observations to two points. First, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is called “charity,” or “the state of grace.” This constitutes friendship with God – the Holy Spirit being God’s own Love for Himself. This is lost by mortal sin. Nowhere in Scripture are we told that we, as individual believers, have the gift of infallibly interpreting the Scriptures on account of some perpetual indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Second, were it true that the Holy Spirit “acts as an interpreter of God’s Word” in the soul of each and every believer, we have two problems. First, a problem of circular logic: who counts as a believer? Isn’t being guided “into all truth” what the Holy Spirit does, thus making one a believer to begin with? Where is the entry point? Second, bracketing the question begging, there is the expectation that “believers” would then all interpret Scripture in a uniform way, at least in a way which is not mutually exclusive. Thus, we see, it is impossible to bracket the question-begging problem: who is a “believer”?

“The Church, i.e., the assembly of all believers, is the dwelling place of the Spirit. Therefore, the Church has the power to recognize the divine authority and inspiration of the Scripture, and to formalize, interpret and teach the Scripture.”

Now, of itself, this is correct. The Church does indeed have such authority. But in the context of the argument, he seems to mean that this can and does happen in any old way… But history does not bear that out. Rather, it is those who are specially charged with teaching who have the collective charism (gift) to know what is Scripture and its authentic meaning and have actually used that charism regularly. This would be the whole college of bishops, successors of the Apostles, in union with the Pope, the Successor of St. Peter, and sometimes even just the Pope. It is true that the whole Church, including laity, can “sense” a truth of faith (the sensus fidelium) with a subsequent definition when there is some true need or advantage (i.e. the Immaculate Conception or the Assumption) but this is neither a common occurrence nor does it easily escape the circular logic of “believer-truth” paradigm explored above, at least on a strict interpretation of that principle (which would seem to be required here due to it being the only leg to stand on). It very much seems one might err in what the Church “as a whole” knows without breaking faith. (For example, St. Thomas Aquinas and the Immaculate Conception.) This leaves us without a principle to define faith and morals, including out of the pages of Scripture, except that visible hierarchical structure within the Church, which structure was instituted by Our Lord Himself.

“One common objection to sola scriptura is that the principle was unknown in the Church for the first 1500 years, and only brought into existence in the 16th century by the Reformers.”

Yes. Certainly, the apostles were not teaching it – they could not have, as there was no New Testament yet! Who then decided – somehow using Scripture itself, which has somehow been defined as Scripture – that this is now the whole regula fidei?

“For starters, to use an analogy, scientists didn’t formulate the law of gravity until the 17th century, but it doesn’t mean that the law didn’t exist in nature before then.”

The author seems to mean that Luther is theology’s version of Isaac Newton. There was already this principle before, and he and the other Reformers just articulated it. Let’s see…

“More importantly, Jesus, the apostles, and the early Church Fathers constantly applied the principle of sola scriptura when witnessing to the Jews of their time. They rejected tradition as the “tradition of men”. They didn’t and couldn’t appeal to the religious authorities, the chief priests and Pharisees who persecuted them. Consequently, they reasoned with the Jews using the Scriptures alone. Although the Jews compiled and transmitted the Old Testament Scriptures, early Christians did not trust the Jewish religious authorities with the interpretation, believing that the latter were not illuminated by the Holy Spirit.”

It should be easy, first of all, to find numerous references to such a principle throughout the patristic sources, despite the claim of the analogy with Newton. If Sola Scriptura is in fact THE way that Christianity is lived, THE way that theology is done, then surely, the Fathers will say so, over and over. But such references will be thin – I know of only two texts which indicate something like Sola Scriptura, and their authors, Hippolytus and St. Cyril of Jerusalem, would hardly agree with such an interpretation of their words. When the Fathers talk about doctrine, obviously they make copious use of Scripture to prove their points. However, nobody here is claiming that Scripture is not authoritative… Rather, the claim is that Scripture does not always interpret itself (let alone assemble itself), and sometimes an authoritative interpretation is called for due to some crisis, and this requires appealing to some visible, biologically living authority. Quite to the point, if Scripture interpreted itself fully, there would not be the tomes of exegesis produced by the Fathers. What is more, even St. Peter found the Pauline epistles to be difficult to understand, and a potential cause of division and doctrinal confusion: “Consider also that our Lord’s patience brings salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom God gave him. He writes this way in all his letters, speaking in them about such matters. Some parts of his letters are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction. Therefore, beloved, since you already know these things, be on your guard so that you will not be carried away by the error of the lawless and fall from your secure standing.” (2 Peter 3:15-17) Additionally, the content of Scripture is itself affirmed by any other doctrinal content which can be derived from other sources, such as the liturgy. Neither I nor the Fathers would have any problem saying that all of the content of Christian faith and morals is found, even if only in seminal form, in the Scriptures, and that if it cannot be so found, it is not Christian. (This is not a controversial position. It is called the “material sufficiency” of Scripture, as opposed to the “formal sufficiency” of Scripture, as the latter would constitute Sola Scriptura.) This would even apply to something like the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which Pius XII explicitly stated when defining that dogma: “All these proofs and considerations of the holy Fathers and the theologians are based upon the Sacred Writings as their ultimate foundation.” Finally, there is a veritable plethora of patristic argumentation against Sola Scriptura, albeit indirectly (since nobody was really asserting such a principle until Luther – it would have been batting at the air). For more on the Fathers’ views on Scripture vis-a-vis the regula fidei, see Dave Armstrong’s wonderful compendium on “Church Fathers vs. Sola Scriptura.” Suffice it to say that it is a pretty good list, both offering positive evidence for the Catholic view and negative evidence against the interpretation made by some of certain Fathers in favor of Sola Scriptura.

The Lord and subsequently His disciples do not trust “Jews” to interpret the Tanakh (the “Jewish Bible”/Old Testament) because, quite simply, the Jews looked the meaning of their Scriptures in the face 2,000 years ago, argued with Him about the Law, and then killed Him. Yes, yes, “not all Jews killed Christ,” but if you don’t believe the Messiah has come, and you have had the Gospel announced to you, then you are an unsafe guide to the Old Testament, period. I wrote a post about that here – which polemic could be applied to another prominent Italian bishop as of recently, but I digress.

“There are some parallels in history between the separation of Christianity from Judaism, and Protestantism from Roman Catholicism.”

There are, but they are not particularly relevant, as far as I can tell. In the one case, the meaning of the Old Testament is fulfilled and constitutes a new and universal Covenant, an open door with the Blood of the Lamb upon the doorpost and lintel, into which the whole world can fit, thus being saved from the Angel of Death. In the other, you have a frustrated Augustinian friar who likely had serious trouble with the 6th Commandment, swinging from deep despair over his sins to deep presumption of his salvation, subsequently building a theology centered around protecting his frail psyche from having to deal with intolerable cognitive dissonance and the challenges of authentic Christian moral life, using other clergy’s moral corruption as a scapegoat.

“Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians say that the Scripture must be understood in the context of Tradition. I asked them in the forum what “Tradition” means and how one can relate to it in daily practice. After nearly a year of discussion, I remain as mystified as ever. I would submit that, because of its lack of clarity, Tradition cannot be a guiding, let alone authoritative, principle in the Christian life.”

Fair enough. Well, frankly, the best definition of “the context of Tradition” is the Liturgy, wherein we find not only the beginnings of the sensus fidelium about what counts as Scripture (which was extremely relevant, as St. Vincent of Lerins is keen to point out), but also through the prayers and practice of the Church in administering grace. For example, that the Church distributes Holy Communion to laity is not something taught directly or clearly in Scripture, but it is nonetheless rooted therein while being explicitly contained as a datum in the liturgical use of the Church. Same for baptizing infants, ordaining men alone, or petitioning the saints. These practices and their accompanying speculative doctrines are rooted in Scripture but are made more articulate by the Liturgy of the Church. Lex credendi, lex orandi – as one believes, so one prays. Tradition does not simply reduce to Liturgy, as it would also include the visible authoritative structure of clerical hierarchy as its own distinct point, and any kind of consistent teaching/preaching about faith or morals (especially among the Fathers) for a long period of time widely throughout the Church (the “universal ordinary magisterium,” for example, Catholic doctrine on abortion or contraception), perhaps along with revelatory teachings which, while not contrary to and which can be found dimly in the Scriptures, were passed on orally in the beginning before the whole of the New Testament was written, with such things ending with the death of the last apostle. (See the aforementioned 2 Thessalonians 2:15 – “So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.”) One might also include in “Tradition” the fact of the definition of what the Scriptures actually mean, such as through Ecumenical Councils or the occasional solemn papal definition.

“When an age of rampant relativism has run its course, people tend to gravitate toward authoritative figures, perhaps due to a deep-seated need for justification. In politics, it is the Supreme Court or the President, in religion, it is the Pope or the Patriarch, in academics, it is the most outspoken scholars. However, appealing to authority, apart from being a logical fallacy, is also futile, for authority figures are fallible and fallen men.”

Unless such fallen men are given the office to teach with participation in God’s own authority. Even if they are sinful, they retain that authority (to teach, govern, and sanctify, just as Christ with His gold, myrrh, and frankincense) until they lose the office. Just like Saul was really King of Israel, so too are bad popes and bishops really popes and bishops. On the natural plane, an evil governor or judge still exercises his office with the authority proper to it. Recall St. Peter’s words about Nero – that he ought to be honored – or St. Paul’s – that he ought to be obeyed and given his taxes. (1 Peter 2:17, Romans 13:1-8) This is the same Nero who would later execute them both.

“An Ecumenical Council might serve a necessary function in the life of the Church. It provides a venue for spiritual fellowship and rational discourse, a venue for resolving conflicts and maintaining unity, but it is not the ultimate authority of Christian faith.”

This is true, but the contrary is not being claimed, as should now be clear. Ecumenical Councils serve, in part, to define what the Scriptures actually mean – the Councils have the authority to interpret another authority, indeed a higher authority, if one wants to say so – perhaps it is better to say that it is a different kind of authority rather than a higher or lower one, as Scripture contains revelation (through inspiration) while Councils only enjoy protection from error in their solemn definitions.

“Another common objection to sola scriptura is that there are many different, even contradictory, interpretations of the Scriptures. Therefore, it is not a reliable approach to the truth.”

Almost but not quite. It’s more specific: many self-identifying Christians, who claim to believe the teachings of Scripture, and who believe those teachings are extremely important for salvation, have mutually exclusive interpretations of Scripture. Who cares what atheists think about Genesis, or what Hindus think about the Gospel of Matthew, or what universalist Unitarians think about 1 Corinthians?

“Firstly, as Paul writes, ‘When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things’. It is only natural that Christians believe different things in different stages of their spiritual life. If they all believed the same thing, it might actually be a sign of brainwashing.”

If truth is One as God is One, then there cannot be contradictory truths. Therefore, believing “the same thing,” at least on matters pertaining to what suffices for salvation, is rather important. It is no less brainwashing than it is to believe God on His own authority, for that is what is being asserted to begin with: that Scripture is the Word of God transmitted through human language. So at least the fundamental matters, both speculative and practical (moral), ought to be communicated clearly enough to be believed by all who are attempting to approach God through Christ.

“Secondly, it is true that we tend to project our personal opinions into the things we read, the Scripture not excepted, which results in errors and even abuses. But, we can avoid falling into this trap by heeding Augustine’s admonition: ‘For to believe what you please, and not to believe what you please, is to believe yourselves, and not the gospel.’
(St. Augustine, Contra Faustum, Bk. XVII)

Augustine makes an important distinction between sola scriptura and the misuse of scripture. If one follows the principle of sola scriptura, he would uphold the whole scripture, not just accept the parts he approves and reject the rest; Origen, when he defends the doctrine of free will, examines all the relevant passages in the Scripture, including those verses that seem to contradict free will, and provides an interpretation of those verses that both make sense in context and are consistent with free will. This is the type of exegesis that we can all learn from.

Augustine also writes that there can be many valid interpretations of the same passage of the Scripture, as long as they don’t contradict the rule of faith and logic; Origen demonstrates that there are many levels of interpretations of the Scripture, literal, allegorical, moral and spiritual. These manifold interpretations are all valid and help us to grow deeper in faith and understanding.”

We should certainly follow the advice of St. Augustine. But his advice does nothing to solve the problem of circular reasoning, as mentioned above, nor the problem of canonicity. Leaving aside canonicity, how do I know that I am really and correctly taking into account all of Scripture, especially if others say that they are too but disagree in a mutually exclusive way with me on the same point? The interpretation of the Bread of Life Discourse in John 6 is a great example. Is the Eucharist really, substantially Christ, or just some kind of unique symbol? The stakes are about as high as they get on that issue… And yet the Protestants jettisoned what had been settled doctrine since the 1st century, only meaningfully being first challenged by Berengar of Tours about a thousand years later (who was thankfully reconciled to the Church before his death). So, who is right? Are Catholics material idolaters, or are Protestants rejecting the greatest gift the Lord has left with us? It is one or the other. Same goes for whether faith alone, without “works,” suffices for salvation – that is not exactly a small disagreement.

“At the most basic level, sola scriptura is an approach to the inquiry for truth. It shares common characteristics with other approaches to inquiry, such as the scientific method. For it focuses attention on objective data, i.e., what is independently observable and verifiable, not opinions that may or may not be grounded in the data.”

Sola Scriptura is an approach, but it is a flawed approach. There is, in fact, an additional font of data which we can and in fact must use to interpret Scripture, which is the Church’s teaching office, the Magisterium (which, when functioning, is necessarily always in line with Tradition).

“Reading the Scripture is like reading the Book of Nature. God is the author of both. An interpretation is like a scientific theory. If any scientific theory contradicts known facts or experimental results, then that theory is falsified. Similarly, if any interpretation contradicts part of the Scripture, it is not a valid interpretation.”

Nature does not require faith to understand. The Scriptures do. The science of theology, which is primarily done out of the Scriptures (best done out of their original languages – or at least out of the Septuagint), takes God’s authority as its starting point. And as God is One, the truth is One as well. So, correct, no true contradictions are possible.

“As an inquiry for truth, sola scriptura aims at preventing people from elevating themselves above the Scripture, the objective standard of truth. In other words, it is a countermeasure against tyranny. It proclaims that everyone has access to the Truth, and everyone becomes accountable, being measured against the objective standard.”

Anarchy is just as tyrannical as despotism. However, Christ is no despot, He is a true King, and those who participate lawfully in His teaching office therefore do not constrain the mind except to bring it to the truth – which is a freeing act. One no longer needs to worry about so many questions, as they are already answered infallibly. But this in no way limits the horizons for Biblical exegesis – on the contrary, it expands them, opening one up to “all truth.”

END COMMENTARY

In the end, I remain unconvinced and stand by my original list of 7 problems.

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My post on my trip to Poland is coming soon – apologies for the delay, I know I must feed the readership!