Friday, April 29, 2011

Questions about Sola Scriptura

One of the useful things about blogging is that it gives me a chance to get feedback on questions I’m thinking through. I’ve tried to get a discussion group started at my house where people can come over and discuss some of my questions, but since that has never got off the ground (any local friends interested???), I am reduced to using this blog to generate discussion. (For example, see my ‘Question About the Great Schism' and ‘Question about Apostolic Succession’ and 'Questions about Ecumenical Councils' to join in the discussion about these important issues.)

All to say, I now have some questions about the doctrine of Sola Scriptura which I’d like feedback on.

But first some background. Earlier in the year when I was doing doctoral research in London, I used my mealtimes to watch lectures and debates on Youtube. One of the debates I listened to was between James White and some Mormons.

When asked to defend how he knew that Sola Scriptura was correct, White appealed to the inspiration of the scriptures – scriptures which, Paul says, are sufficient for every good work. When the Mormons pressed White to explain how he knew that scripture was inspired, he refused to give any reason, because he said that if he could give a reason then such a reason more be ultimate than scripture itself. By contrast, the Mormons did give an external reason in appealing to the work of the Spirit. White continued to maintain that if there were any external grounds you could appeal to in establishing the veracity of scripture, then those grounds would be more authoritative and ultimate than scripture itself. Thus, White insisted that we must start by assuming the veracity of scripture, and from that platform we can then find internal reasons from within scripture establishing the truth of scripture.

The Mormons responded to this circularity by asking White an obvious question: in the absence of any outside reasons, how are we able to adjudicate between the Bible and other books which claim to be sacred scripture? White answered this by saying that alternative contenders for sacred scripture are evaluated by the criterion of consistency with the canon already assumed. Hence, the Koran or the Book of Mormon are out because they are not consistent with the corpus of literature we have already assumed to be canonical. At that point, I wish one of the Mormons had pointed out that if consistency is our only criteria, then in theory the corpus of scripture can be open ended. For who knows when another book may show up that is consistent with what is already in the corpus?
 
But what should we make of White’s concern that external reasons for knowing the truth of scripture would undermine the ultimacy of scripture? Fortunately, this argument is based on a simple Non Sequitur. Lesser things can point to greater things all the time while still remaining lesser. We can give reasons for believing in God, and believing in His Revelation, without thereby implying that those reasons are more ultimate than God. For example, the Bible is full of reasons why it is rational to put faith in God, and the corollary that atheism is irrational and foolish, but it doesn’t follow that rationality is therefore more ultimate than God. Similarly, we can point to evidences for the resurrection of our Lord (such as that he was “seen by many witnesses” – an argument employed by the Biblical writers) without thereby implying that Christ’s resurrection is subordinate to, or somehow dependent on, such evidence. Jesus pointed to His own mighty works as authentication of His ministry, but it doesn't follow that His ministry was subordinate to or less ultimate than those works. 

Similarly with scripture: if we provide rational external grounds for believing in the Bible, it doesn’t suddenly follow that the Bible’s truth is subordinate to, or somehow dependent on, such grounds. And this even includes instances where our knowledge of the truth may be dependent on such grounds. (My little girl's knowledge of the Bible is dependent on her having successfully acquired linguistic skills, but it doesn’t follow that the Bible is therefore subordinate to her linguistic skills.) Suffice to say, James White's argument doesn't hold up: giving reasons for believing in an ultimate authority does not make that ultimate authority subordinate to or dependent on those reasons.
 
So much for James White. But this did get me thinking about a question that is often posed by non-Protestant apologists. They will frequently ask something like this:
 
Can you give reasons for believing in sola scriptura? Surely you can’t, because the reasons for believing in sola scriptura cannot be from outside of scripture, since then that would contradict the very doctrine of sola scriptura. But the reasons for believing in sola scriptural cannot be drawn from scripture either, because scripture never addresses the question of sola scriptura, nor does it even define scripture (after all, the church gives us the Bible’s Table of Contents page).
 
The first part of this argument (“The reasons for believing in sola scriptura cannot be from outside of scripture, because then you have contradicted the very doctrine of sola scriptura”) is fallacious for the same reason that James White’s argument cited above was fallacious. The doctrine of sola scriptura affirms that the Bible is the ultimate rule of faith for the church and the ultimate authority. Now since we already seen that to give reasons for believing in an ultimate authority does not make that ultimate authority subordinate to or dependent on those reasons, it follows that to give reasons drawn from outside of scripture for how we know that scripture is the ultimate rule of faith for the church does not make the latter subordinate or even dependent on the former. Nevertheless the above argument (“The reasons for believing in sola scriptura cannot be from outside of scripture, because then you have contradicted the very doctrine of sola scriptura”) is relevant for undermining a certain type of sola scriptura, namely one which refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of any secondary authorities for the Christian’s life. (Protestants  who are against this idea now call it solo rather than sola scriptura to convey the idea of Scripture standing completely on its own.) The standard formulation of sola scriptura recognizes authorities outside of scripture, it simply denies that any of these are co-equal to scripture. Sola Scriptura says that the Bible is the ultimate rule of faith for the church, not the only rule of faith for the church.

This distinction is important to emphasize since non-Protestants often interact with a false and truncated view of sola scriptura. The distinction between sola and solo is laid out in detail in Keith Mathison's The Shape of Sola Scriptura. Mathison argues that the classical reformed doctrine of sola scriptura (which, he argues was also the position taken by the early church and most of the medieval Western church) emphasized that the Bible is the final authoritative norm of doctrine and practice yet must be interpreted in and by the Church, within the context of the regula fidei given by the church. Mathison contrasts this with the modern evangelical view (themselves the heirs of the Annabaptists) of solo scripture which denies all subordinate and secondary authorities within the Christian’s life. 

I am not qualified to say whether Mathison is correct historically. Certainly Luther’s famous ‘Here I Stand’ speech gives the appearance of one unconcerned with letting the church interpret scripture, though let's not forget to take Luther's words in the context of his entire corpus. In any event, I will need to read specialist historians on these points before making up my mind, and that will probably have to wait until after I finish my doctorate. I pass, rather, to the theological questions this raises. Let’s assume that Mathison is correct and that the Protestant view of sola scriptura, when properly understood, affirms that the Bible is the final authoritative norm of doctrine and practice yet must be interpreted in and by the  subordinate authority of the Church, within the context of the regula fidei of the apostolic church. The rest of the discussion assumes that this is what is meant by "sola scriptura".

The strength of this position is that it acts as a hedge against the anarchy of the type of individualistic and subjective hermeneutics which non-Protestants are always pointing out is the corollary to the Protestant doctrine of scripture. Or does it function as a hedge? Immediately certain problems arise. If we endeavor to interpret the Bible in a way that is consistent with the apostolic faith, where is the apostolic faith to be found so that we can interpret the Bible consistently with it?

This question is extremely practical. A Protestant Bible teacher and author once told me that if I privately concluded that Jesus isn't God, then as a good Protestant I would be bound to also infer that the Arians truly represented the apostolic tradition and that all the early councils were heretical gatherings. Apart from the problem of circularity, it is hard to see what is the practical cash value for contending, as Sola Scriptura apparently does, that we must interpret scripture through the lens of the subordinate authority of historic tradition if our interpretation of scripture is what defines the boundaries of that tradition in the first place. If we extrapolate the implications far enough, how can we keep Sola Scriptura from collapsing into the Anabaptist doctrine of what Mathison calls Solo Scriptura?

This throws us back to my fundamental question: whose understanding of the Word of God ought to be normative in measuring traditions? Is my own personal understanding of God’s Word meant to be the yardstick? In that case, we are back to the radical individualism of the Anabaptists and the modern evangelical movements. Or is the reformed church’s understanding of God’s Word meant to be the yardstick by which traditions are measured? In that case, the reformed church becomes hermeneutically autonomous, which is the criticism Protestants level against Rome all the time. Of course, everyone, must exercise private judgment in satisfying the conditions of knowledge (after all, the choice to follow the Pope or embrace EO tradition is itself a judgment that must be made by the private individual), just as every mathematician exercises individual judgment when answering math problems. However, in math there are normative standards that can guide individual judgment and determine whether my personal judgment is correct or not. Sola Scriptura doesn't seem to provide any such normatives since even the subordinate authority of church tradition has boundaries that are up for grabs should my interpretation of scripture change.


Putting the problem another way, since all traditions on the Protestant view must conform to our personal understanding of the Word of God in order to be legit, then saying that we interpret the Bible through the lens of a legitimate subordinate tradition (i.e., the apostolic faith) is simply another way of saying we interpret the Bible through the lens of our interpretation of the Bible. And again, the Arian might use that argument with equal consistency. Nor would it be easy to know how to answer the Arian if he went on to parody Luther’s famous appeal to individual conscience: “I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God...it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.” Of course, Luther believed that his convictions had continuity with the historic teaching of the church. But ultimately, it was his interpretation of scripture that enabled him to identify what was in fact the historic teaching of the church.
 
In 2009 I wrote to Keith Mathison with these questions, and he pointed to a section in his book where he addresses this. In his book he does recognize that this is a problem that has to be addressed for advocates of sola scriptura. He writes, “First, we must remember that, according to sola scriptura, the Church is the true interpreter of Scripture. But where is this Church?” This is exactly the problem I have identified and I will call Question #1 for future reference. Basically, if we interpret scripture through the lens of the church, but we identify the church through our interpretation of scripture, then in practice we don’t need the church at all.  So Sola Scriptura collapses into Solo Scriptura.
 
Mathison gives two possible answers to this problem, one of which he rejects. “With the existence of numerous visibly fragmented communions claiming to be true churches, we essentially have two choices. A person could assert that only one branch is the true visible Church. This is the answer of Rome, Orthodoxy, and some Protestant communions.” Mathison finds this first solution problematic because it is impossible to defend without circularity. If one defends this view by appealing to one’s own interpretation of scripture, then it is circular for the reasons I have already given. But if the person merely assumes that one tradition has the right to interpret scripture, then he is begging the question. As Mathison puts it:
"One could argue that his branch is the one true branch because it is the closest to the teaching of Scripture (a Protestant denomination), or to the fathers (Rome and Orthodoxy). But according to whose interpretation of the Scripture or the fathers? A person could say it is according to his own interpretation of the Scripture or the fathers but then he is once again trapped in radical subjectivity. The person would have to say that Rome is the true branch (or Orthodoxy, or a Protestant denomination) because it comes closest to his interpretation of what the Scriptures (or the fathers) teach.
Instead of appealing to his own individual interpretation, a person could say that according to the interpretation of one branch (Rome, Orthodoxy, or a Protestant denomination), only that one branch is the true visible Church. But then he is caught in an untenable circular argument. Rome would be the one true Church because Rome adheres to the teaching of Scripture and/or tradition, as those are interpreted by Rome. Orthodoxy would be the one true Church because Orthodoxy adheres to Scripture and/or tradition, as those are interpreted by Orthodoxy. One Protestant denomination or another would be the one true Church because that denomination adhere to the teaching of Scripture, as it is interpreted by that denomination. The question-begging circularity of the argument is vicious.
So what is the solution? According to Mathison, the solution is Branch Theory, which shifts the argument from the visible church to the invisible:
If we cannot assert that only one branch is the only true visible Church without falling into one form of arbitrariness or another, what is our other choice? The remaining choice is to assert that the one invisible Church is found scattered throughout numerous visible ‘fragments’ or ‘branches.’ This would allow an appeal to the corporate witness of the Holy Spirit because the Holy Spirit bears a remarkably unanimous witness to the common confession of faith that has been handed down over the centuries. If we are not to fall into relativistic subjectivity or viciously circular arguments we must examine the idea of the corporate witness of the Spirit as it relates to the identification of the true branches of the Church.

In a sense the issue we are addressing is similar to the question of the canon of Scripture. With the New Testament canon believers were faced with the existence of genuine apostolic books mingled with non-Christian sects. The same criterion is applicable to both situations in a similar, not identical, way.

In the case of the canon, we observed that the criterion was the witness of the Holy Spirit given corporately to God’s people and made manifest by a nearly unanimous acceptance of the New Testament canon in Christian churches. But this criterion assumes that we know what the ‘Christians churches’ are. One way in which we identify the Christian churches is their adherence to the apostolic regula fidei. But what does this mean? It means that we can identify the fragments of the true visible Church by their acceptance of the common testimony of the Holy Spirit in the rule of faith, especially as expressed in written form in the ecumenical creeds of Nicea and Chalcedon. The Holy Spirit has born a miraculously unanimous witness to the same twenty-seven books of the New Testament throughout a confessing Christendom, and the Holy Spirit has born miraculously unanimous witness to a common fundamental creed throughout this same Christendom. This means that ultimately the Holy Spirit is the criterion of truth. But His testimony is made manifest through the corporate witness He bears in the hearts and minds of Christ’s people. The Holy Spirit bears witness corporately to the canon; He also bears witness corporately to the essential truths of Christianity – the rule of faith. Christ’s sheep hear their Shepherd’s voice in the true books of Scripture, and they hear His voice when His truth is confessed in the churches.
SSo let me summarize what I take to be Mathison’s argument (and I hope he will correct me if I have misunderstood him).

1)   Sola scriptura, properly understood, affirms

      a.       that scripture is the ultimate authority for the Christian
      b.      that we must interpret Scripture through the subordinate authority of the church

2)      In order to identify which church functions as this subordinate authority for properly interpreting Scripture, we cannot appeal to our own interpretations of Scripture because that would trap the person in subjectivity.

3)      In order to identify which church functions as this subordinate authority for properly interpreting scripture we cannot simply assume a particular ecclesiastical tradition because that would be a circular argument.

4)      In order to preserve (1b) but avoid (2) and (3), the solution is Branch Theory (“as Mathison says, "if sola scriptura is true, then some form of a ‘branch theory’ of the visible Church is a necessary corollary…”).



I do think this is problematic, however. It’s not so much that I disagree with Mathison, as much as the fact that I don’t see how the Branch Theory actually resolves anything. Let’s not forget that this is Mathison’s extended answer to the question, where is the church that is the true interpreter of Scripture? If the answer hinges on the invisible church, as it explicitly does with Branch theory ("
The remaining choice is to assert that the one invisible Church is found scattered throughout numerous visible ‘fragments’ or ‘branches’"), then we have two further problems:

1)      It is hard to understand in what practical sense the invisible church can be said to interpret scripture. In my experience, only visible things can do that.

2)      If in the end sola scriptura means that the Bible is the ultimate authority but that we must interpret the Bible through the lens of the subordinate authority of the Church (read invisible church in Branch Theory), then the problems that led to Question #1 (above) in the first place can just be asked concerning the invisible church instead of the visible church. If you use a leaky bucket to fix a leaky bucket, you still have a leaky bucket - two in fact.


3)      Why are acceptance of Nicea and Chalcedon a necessary condition for being a fragment of the true visible Church (and therefore contenders for the invisible church within Branch theory) and not the other Ecumenical councils that followed these and which Nicea gave provision for?


4)      Since Mathison says that the ‘branches’ of the invisible church include some of Protestantism, some of Roman Catholicism, some of Eastern Orthodoxy, etc., and since these traditions are by no means uniform in how they interpret scripture, how is it even possible to interpret scripture through the lens of this subordinate authority? They don’t even agree on which books of the Bible should be in the Old Testament canon. So this would be like saying I need to consult a tape measure while being given four or five different tape measures to use.

 
So my question is simply this: if sola scriptura means that we interpret scripture through the lens of the Church, and if by "Church" we mean something that is scattered through all the traditions that affirm Nicea and Chalcedon and give adherence to the apostolic regula fidei (Branch Theory), then how is it even possible to interpret Scripture since these traditions conflict on important points (they do not even share the same Nicene creed, for goodness sake)? On the other hand, if we pick merely one tradition to use as the lens for interpreting scripture, then how is our sola scriptura different in principle from solo scriptura, since it will be our own private subjective interpretation of scripture that leads us to pick one tradition and not another?

Feedback is welcome.

Postscript

Since writing the above questions, someone left a comment on my blog directing me to this article, pointing out essentially the same problems in Mathison's explanation. Their article, 'Solo Scriptura, Sola Scriptura, and the Question of Interpretive Authority' is worth reading in full, but particularly useful is their discussion of how there is no ultimate difference between solo and sola scriptura. I quote:

But there are two ways to make oneself one’s own ultimate interpretive and magisterial authority. One is a direct way and the other is an indirect way. The direct way is to subject all theological questions directly to the final verdict of one’s own interpretation of Scripture. That is the solo scriptura position. Because it is direct, the nature of the position is quite transparent; we can see clearly in such a case that the individual is acting as his own ultimate interpretive authority.

The indirect way of making oneself one’s own ultimate interpretive and magisterial authority is more complicated and subtle. In this case the individual, based upon his own interpretation of Scripture, either establishes or chooses an ecclesial community that conforms to his own interpretation in matters he considers to be essential or important. Then, he ‘submits’ to this institution so long as it continues to speak and act in accordance with his own interpretation of Scripture. If it deviates from his own interpretation of Scripture in matters he deems important, he repeats the process of either establishing or choosing an institution or congregation that conforms to his own interpretation in matters he considers to be essential or important.

In both the direct and indirect ways, the individual is acting as his own ultimate interpretive and magisterial authority. But his doing so is more difficult to see in the indirect case because he appears to be submitting to the interpretive authority of a body of persons other than himself. Yet, because he has established or selected this body of persons on the basis of their conformity to his own interpretation of Scripture, and because he ‘submits’ to them only so long as they agree with his interpretation on matters he considers to be essential or important, therefore in actuality his ‘submission’ to this body is in fact ‘submission’ to himself. To submit to others only when one agrees with them, is to submit to oneself. But submission to oneself is an oxymoron, because it is indistinguishable from not submitting at all, from doing whatever one wants. Yet because this indirect way of being one’s own ultimate interpretive and magisterial authority maintains the appearance of being in submission to another body of persons, it allows those who practice it to believe falsely that they are genuinely submitting to another body of persons, and not acting as their own ultimate interpretive and magisterial authority. Accumulating for themselves this body of persons to whom they ‘submit’ allows them to remain under a delusion that they are submitting to the Church.
Keith Mathison has written a reply to Bryan Cross and Neal Judisch, while the latter authors have also contributed a rubbutal to Mathison's reply. The issues are complex, but the bottom line of Mathison's argument from what I can make out is this (in his own words):
"I do believe that there is a principled difference between sola scriptura and solo scriptura, but I am convinced that the difference is all but invisible to those who are convinced that the evidence for Rome’s claims is strong."
Now here's the problem:  because being convinced that the claims of Rome are strong necessarily entails that we are NOT convinced of sola scriptura (though the converse is not necessarily the case, since there is also Eastern Orthodoxy), to say "the difference between solo and sola is invisible to those who are convinced of Rome" amounts to saying that unless we first believe in sola scriptura, it's meaning will be invisible to us. But this hardly helps me if I am wondering whether the concept is coherent in the first place! I mean, think about it, you could say this about anything. Forget the spurious distinction between sola and solo for a minute and take any questionable distinction. To say of the questionable distinction that you have to first believe it for it to make sense, is not to present an argument but to simply acknowledge that your conclusion cannot be defended, only assumed. This is consistent with the fact that throughout The Shape of Sola Scriptura Mathison talks about sola scriptura being self-evidently true (just look at this list of occurrences).


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18 comments:

Principium Unitatis said...

Hello Robin,

Neal and I addressed this question regarding Keith's book in 2009:

http://www.calledtocommunion.com/2009/11/solo-scriptura-sola-scriptura-and-the-question-of-interpretive-authority/

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Michael said...

SCRIPTURE IS NOT SUBJECT TO PRIVATE INTERPRETATION

"True knowledge is [that which consists in] the doctrine of the apostles, and the ancient constitution of the Church throughout all the world, and the distinctive manifestation of the body of Christ according to the successions of the bishops, by which they have handed down that Church which exists in every place, and has come even unto us, being guarded and preserved without any forging of Scriptures, by a very complete system of doctrine, and neither receiving addition nor [suffering] curtailment [in the truths which she believes]; and [it consists in] reading [the word of God] without falsification, and a lawful and diligent exposition in harmony with the Scriptures, both without danger and without blasphemy; and [above all, it consists in] the pre-eminent gift of love, which is more precious than knowledge, more glorious than prophecy, and which excels all the other gifts [of God]." Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 4,33:8 (inter A.D. 180-199).

Anonymous said...

Greg Bahnsen argues that sola scriptura comes from Scripture itself: http://www.christiantruth.com/articles/bahnsen.html

Robin Phillips said...

Bryan, I look forward to reading your article this evening.

Thanks Michael for that quote. If the proper interpretation of scripture is handed down through the Church, which of the various competing ecclesiastical traditions should we look to?

Tim Enloe said...

Be sure, if you're going to read Cross, to read Mathison's 50 pp. response to him.

Tim Enloe said...

Robin,

Your questions are good ones, but I think another part of the answer is simply to deny the skepticism that drives the whole anti-sola Scriptura polemic. That is, whether from Roman or Orthodox converts, the default premise is that no one can truly "know" anything unless an infallible thingummy tells one so. When coupled with the false understanding of "private interpretation" as being merely what a single person, solipism-like, can reconcile inside his own head, the polemic LOOKS powerful.

But it isn't. Deny the skepticism by saying, with the classical authors, Church Fathers, Medievals, and Reformers, that reality can be truly (though not exhaustively) known by the normal operations of the human mind. Apply this to sola Scriptura by saying that the basic meaning of Scripture ("the things necessary for salvation") can be known by the normal operations of the human mind. And apply it to the identification of the community from which the regula fidei derives by saying that the community can be known by the normal operations of the human mind.

The counterargument that there are different canons of Scripture and different boundary markers of "the Christian community" only applies when one tries to nail down "the community" to a maximally-inclusive doctrinal standard. Lutherans are more "wishy washy" on the canon than the Reformed, but few Reformed would say the Lutherans aren't Christians. Rome has 7 extra books in the OT solely because the Council of Trent needed "biblical" authority for doctrines unique to Rome. Some Protestants make sola fide a basic boundary marker because they reify the Reformation-era battle as if it was the same kind of thing as Nicea or Chalcedon.

The bottom line is that when it comes to communities, things are just more "fuzzy" than rationalists on all sides want them to be. So my answer to your questions is three-fold: (1) deny skepticism as a premise for any argument about Scripture or the tradition, (2) deny rationalism as a proper method for determining who is "in" and who is "out," and (3) deny the exaggerated concept of individualism that motivates most convert arguments.

I won't say it's "simple" to apply any of this, but God never promised us that the Christian life would be simple.

Tim Enloe said...

Robin, to your postscript:

Don't be fooled by Cross' implication that Mathison's sola position reduces to the individual necessarily judging all communities by his own personal interpretation of Scripture. Although some MAY do this, it NEED not follow. Cross, like most converts, is convinced of one of those spurious distinctions that you yourself mention, and it is critical to see through his reasoning to what is really at stake. Here it is:

Like most converts, Cross is convinced of the spurious notion that it is possible to submit yourself to an ecclesiastical community (in his case, to Rome) without making an original act of the very private judgment" he is condemning, and that it is possible to remain in the community so chosen without subsequently making numerous additional "private judgments." This is simply a false notion. His skepticism always focuses on the interpretation of Scripture, but why should that skepticism not be applied equally to any of the criteria which he, Cross the individual, had to privately examine in order to come to the conclusion that he must submit his judgment to Rome? Why is the interpretation of the historical and theological case for Rome exempted from the skepticism that is applied to the interpretation of Scripture?

Thus, Cross is himself guilty of the "indirect" way of making himself his own interpretive and magisterial authority. Here are his own words, suitably modified, to show the flaw of his argument:

"The indirect way of making oneself one’s own ultimate interpretive and magisterial authority is more complicated and subtle. In this case the individual, based upon his own interpretation of historical, philosophical, and theological data, either establishes or chooses an ecclesial community that conforms to his own interpretation in matters he considers to be essential or important. Then, he ‘submits’ to this institution so long as it continues to speak and act in accordance with his own interpretation of historical, philosophical, and theological data. If it deviates from his own interpretation of historical, philosophical, and theological data in matters he deems important, he repeats the process of either establishing or choosing an institution or congregation that conforms to his own interpretation in matters he considers to be essential or important."

Don't be fooled by this, Robin. It is a position that begins in skepticism, and then "solves" the skeptical crisis by a sophistical argument. No doubt even Brian Cross would leave Rome if the Magisterium produced an infallible document claiming, say, that Jesus Christ is not the Son of God or that we can save ourselves by our own efforts. He might say that will never happen, because Rome is protected by the Spirit, but that's obviously special pleading. The bottom line is, as I've said for years, that all these converts basically set up a ladder that they climb to Rome, and, once arriving in Rome, they promptly kick the ladder down and proceed to berate others for climbing similar ladders to wherever they got to.

Principium Unitatis said...

Robin,

Tim wrote, "Cross is convinced of the spurious notion that it is possible to submit yourself to an ecclesiastical community (in his case, to Rome) without making an original act of the very private judgment" he is condemning, and that it is possible to remain in the community so chosen without subsequently making numerous additional "private judgments."

Actually, not only am I not convinced of the truth of those two claims, I explicitly deny them. I have explained this in more detail in "The Tu Quoque."

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Tim Enloe said...

Brian,

My time is extremely limited, and I may not be able to re-read "Tu Quoque" or interact with it. (I've read it before; wasn't impressed.)

However, this quote from another piece you wrote was brought to my attention:

The person becoming Catholic, by contrast, is seeking out the Church that Christ founded. He does this not by finding that group of persons who share his interpretation of Scripture. Rather, he locates in history those whom the Apostles appointed and authorized, observes what they say and do viz-a-viz the transmission of teaching and interpretive authority, traces
that line of successive authorizations down through history to the present
day to a living Magisterium, and then submits to what this present-day Magisterium is teaching. By finding the Magisterium, he finds something that has the divine authority to bind the conscience.


Whatever you wrote in "Tu Quoque," this statement just proves my point to Robin. Notice your words: the person seeking Christ's Church himself "locates in history those whom the Apostles appointed and authorized...". Well, pray tell, Brian, HOW does said person do this locating? By analyzing and sifting things from among the enormous mass, often very confusing and sometimes even contradictory, of evidence available to the student of history. Said person is actually using the very "private judgment" you decry in order to analyze and sift the history so as to "locate" the "authorized" persons that he can then "submit" to.

You can't get away from this Brian, no matter how many sophisticated-looking distinctions you make (such as the one between the Protestant, who allegedly is looking only for a group of people who agree with himself, and the Catholic who is looking for the Church Christ founded). No one can get away from what you converts call "private judgment." It's an inescapable fact of human existence.

Be that as it may, like most converts, you exaggerate the problem the Protestant has as he looks for truth. It is simply not true that every Protestant looking for truth is looking merely for a group that agrees with himself. That was not the case with me when I became Reformed, nor with many others that I know. I was confused about what the truth of Scripture (beyond a few basics, anyway, which I was never confused about) was, and I sought out various groups not to find one that matched my pre-existing view, but to find one that could persuade me of the truth of its positions, i.e., that its positions were the ones Christ Himself teaches in Scripture. That is not one iota different than what you did in becoming Catholic. You just chose to focus on Church history rather than on Scripture, and then used what you found in history to validate the Catholic interpretation of Scripture.

Robin:

One other thing to pay attention to with these guys like Cross: usually they are extremely ill-read in Church history, and cannot stand any sort of in-depth conversation about particular issues. Despite their continuous loud appeals to history (which they do not know in any serious detail), it is not ultimately about "what history says." It is about their personal existential crisis of skepticism, and how, like the Evangelical anxious-bench guy who "found Jesus," they found an "authority" that could alleviate all their existential angst.

Tim Enloe said...

And again, from the "Tu Quoque" piece:

Here we should say something about what it means to bind the conscience. It is of the very nature of law to bind the conscience. Law does not coerce the
will, but law binds the conscience precisely insofar as reason grasps it as the standard or rule to which our beliefs, words and actions ought to conform. God's law, written on our hearts in the form of the natural law, informs the conscience of every man. Once one knows the law, then one knows
acting against the law to be unlawful. Likewise, once one knows the Church's magisterial authority, and her divinely revealed laws and dogmas concerning
faith and morals, then one's conscience is bound to believe and obey them.


Notice, Robin, what Cross tacitly assumes here. He does not allow anyone to assume that they can know the canon of Scripture by ordinary rational means (this, he says, would be merely personal opinion), but he demands that he be allowed to know the Magisterial authority by ordinary rational means. Once this authority is known, he says, THEN we can have our conscience bound by it. Perhaps his fallacy is not so much "tu quoque" as it is "begged question" or "special pleading." For, why can't the ordinary believer, using ordinary rational means (which include appealing to a broad Christian consensus), know the canon of Scripture, but by using the same means he CAN know the Magisterial authority?

There's no reason to take this argument seriously. It is fallacious from stem to stern.

Robin Phillips said...

Thanks Tim, you make some good points, but I'm still finding myself wondering if Bryan has a point.

Consider. You write, "Well, pray tell, Brian, HOW does said person do this locating? By analyzing and sifting things from among the enormous mass, often very confusing and sometimes even contradictory, of evidence available to the student of history. Said person is actually using the very 'private judgment' you decry in order to analyze and sift the history so as to 'locate' the 'authorized' persons that he can then 'submit' to."

But if I understand Brian's position properly, he does not dispute, in theory or in practice or by implication, that this particular type of 'private judgment' is necessary and unavoidable. The difference he is alleging involves that which the person who uses that type of private judgment discovers. The process of trying to discover the truth may be the same, but the object discovered at the end of the process is not, which is all Cross is saying if I understand him. For example, Cross writes that "What the person becoming Catholic discovers in his study of history, tradition and Scripture is not merely an interpretation. If what he discovered were merely an interpretation of history, tradition and Scripture, then what he discovered would have no more authority than any Protestant confession. If his discovery were merely an interpretation, it too would be merely a human opinion. The prospective Catholic finds in his study of history and tradition and Scripture something that does not have a merely human source, either from himself or from other mere humans not having divine authorization. He finds in the first, second and third (etc.) centuries something with a divine origin and with divine authority."

Given this distinction, Cross could say that your argument is a straw man since he explicitly denies that it is possible to submit yourself to an ecclesiastical community (in his case, to Rome) without making an original act of the very private judgment. Ergo, one could argue that your objections are against a position that he does not hold.

Tim Enloe said...

It is critical in discussions like this to challenge the convert's distorted picture both of what the "individual" Protestant is capable of and what he actually does. Converts like Cross exaggerate the matter of "private judgment" either because they themselves were extremely unstable (and they are now unjustifiably universalizing their own poor experiences, demanding that the rest of us simply agree to their immature characterizations of the issues) or because it is simply polemically useful to reduce all of one's foes to the lowest common denominator.

The fact is that in real life, NO ONE holds to the theory of "private judgment" that these converts are always harping about. For NO ONE (save for the lunatic in a straitjacket) actually does consistently think of himself as an epistemological island. EVERYONE takes some account of authorities outside of himself in all kinds of matters both mundane and serious.

The real issue in all of this is not the fact that individuals make judgments - everyone must do so all the time, and in very personal ways. The real issue is the extremely complicated task of weighing one's own views in the scale with whatever external authorities one tacitly or explicitly admits into the mix. Converts, though presenting themselves post-conversion as having been isolated monads at last overcome by the blinding truth of Reality, never were such. In fact, they ALWAYS heeded voices outside of themselves, whether parents, friends, fellow church members, or authors of convert-making books and articles that they read.

Their judgment never was "private" as they sloppily mean that term. They constantly equivocate on the term "private." What they really mean is that their judgment was "personal," but they conflate that with the false notion that they never listened to anyone outside of themselves until that glorious day when they finally realized (oh, they're so clever, aren't they, unlike the rest of us dolts!) that they had to "submit" to someone outside of themselves. On the contrary, their judgment was always and always will be "personal," but it was never and never will be "private" in the sense of being a faculty of an isolated monad.

What actually happens on the ground of the Protestant life is that different people have different gifts, different states of knowledge, and different levels of prudential judgment - and these tools are what they PERSONALLY (but not PRIVATELY) use to make all the decisions of their lives, both mundane and serious. Even in the grossest of "me and my Bible out in the woods" cases (the type that most converts harp on and falsely present as universally descriptive of "Protestantism") all that is happening is that a particularly unreflective and immature person is wading into waters too deep for his comprehension, and makes all manner of rash and foolish statements and decisions.

Beware these sloppy arguments, clothed as they are in sophisticated language and falsely irenic "In the peace of Christ" winsomeness. There may be legitimate and intelligent reasons to consider the claims of Roman Catholicism, but the reasons advanced by these converts are not among them.

Tim Enloe said...

Robin, you write:

...Cross writes that "What the person becoming Catholic discovers in his study of history, tradition and Scripture is not merely an interpretation. If what he discovered were merely an interpretation of history, tradition and Scripture, then what he discovered would have no more authority than any Protestant confession. If his discovery were merely an interpretation, it too would be merely a human opinion. The prospective Catholic finds in his study of history and tradition and Scripture something that does not have a merely human source, either from himself or from other mere humans not having divine authorization. He finds in the first, second and third (etc.) centuries something with a divine origin and with divine authority."

Of course I grant that Cross is accurately describing his perceptions of what happened to him - and of what he is writing to others to try to get to happen to them, as well. What I'm saying is that he's (unintentionally) obfuscating the issues by making specious, question-begging distinctions.

The Protestant view of Holy Scripture is that God speaks to His creatures, and because they are His creatures they know His voice. The Bible never tries to justify itself or its picture of God; it just assumes these things are true. We, having heard the voice of God, can come along afterwards in a "faith seeking understanding" manner and try to grasp rational explanations and defenses of what we believe, but, as Augustine properly teaches, everyone ultimately "believes in order to understand." On ultimate matters, no one ever "understands in order to believe."

Attend to Cross' implied contrast: he says that what the person discovers in the second and third centuries is something "with a divine origin" and not a "merely human source." Pray tell, what does he think Scripture is? His contrast implies that he is saying Scripture might as well be a book with a "merely human source" if something outside of it with a bona fide "divine origin" doesn't tell us otherwise. These guys continually berate Scripture - though in Bryan's case, he does it very slickly and tacitly - as if it is no different than any other book we have on our shelves. No Christian actually believes this of Scripture; all confess Scripture to be of a different order than other books.

Robin, these converts have adopted a very dangerous mode of speaking about God and His Word, a way that is drawn from pagan skepticism, not Christian belief (which, having been engendered supernaturally by God, then subsequently tries to rationally understand itself). There is only one purpose to these arguments, and it is NOT to spur you to find the truth. It is to get you doubting what you already know, just like they did, and then to find yourself recapitulating their destabilizing journey of skepticism, so that finally, when you've been worn out by their endless and sophistical verbosity about "sacramental magisterial authority" (or whatever the buzz term at Called to Communion is now), you will at last do just as they did: surrender your brain to an external human oracle which will end your (self-inflicted) epistemological torment.

Honestly, it's a fake problem with a fake solution.

Robin Phillips said...

Tim I have a number of questions but I know you are busy with teaching, so please don't feel that you have to answer all of them. Just pick the ones you have time to answer.

First of all, you make an interesting point when you say "Deny the skepticism by saying, with the classical authors, Church Fathers, Medievals, and Reformers, that reality can be truly (though not exhaustively) known by the normal operations of the human mind. Apply this to sola Scriptura by saying that the basic meaning of Scripture ("the things necessary for salvation") can be known by the normal operations of the human mind. And apply it to the identification of the community from which the regula fidei derives by saying that the community can be known by the normal operations of the human mind." Question # 1 (I have to number my questions for future reference) is whether this is even an option that Mathison's argumentation allows. Consider, Mathison has argued that the community from which the regula fidei derives can be known through the normal operations of the human mind only to the degree that we subscribe to Branch Theory (he used a Reductio ad absurdum to show that Branch Theory is a logical necessity), and since I have argued that Branch theory is itself incoherent within the context that Mathison presents it, does it follow that this necessarily creates problems for knowing said community through the normal operations of the human mind, unless one can show that said argumentation establishing that Branch theory is incoherent is itself false? (That is question #2)

You write, "Apply this to sola Scriptura by saying that the basic meaning of Scripture ('the things necessary for salvation') can be known by the normal operations of the human mind." Question #3 is whether this means that Sola Scriptura only works if we restrict it to the things necessary for salvation? If so, then question#4 is whether you think Mathison, or any Protestant thinker, so restricts Sola Scriptura? If the answer to question #4 is that they don't, then essentially what is happening is that you are explaining Sola Scriptura by redefining it which, it could be argued, merely shows that Sola Scriptura doesn't work as conventionally defined and employed.

"And apply it to the identification of the community from which the regula fidei derives by saying that the community can be known by the normal operations of the human mind." Question #5 is whether this comment implies that you think such a community does exist and, if so, whether it is visible or invisible. If it is invisible, then question #6 is whether such community would be vulnerable to the criticisms made in my post above under the discussion of Branch theory.

Tim, question #6 is whether you agree that Cross is not criticizing Private Judgment in the sense that each of us must use our understanding of reason, history and our interpretations of scripture to discover where the apostolic tradition is or isn't, but that he is only criticizing Private Judgment in the sense employed by those who maintain that no body or ecclesial tradition has the right to authoritatively establish what interpretations are normative, to bind the conscience, and so forth? If you do accept that Cross acknowledges this distinction, then question #7 is which of these two senses of Private Judgment were you referring to when you wrote, "Converts like Cross exaggerate the matter of 'private judgment' either because they themselves were extremely unstable (and they are now unjustifiably universalizing their own poor experiences, demanding that the rest of us simply agree to their immature characterizations of the issues) or because it is simply polemically useful to reduce all of one's foes to the lowest common denominator."

Robin Phillips said...

You wrote, "The Protestant view of Holy Scripture is that God speaks to His creatures, and because they are His creatures they know His voice. The Bible never tries to justify itself or its picture of God; it just assumes these things are true. We, having heard the voice of God, can come along afterwards in a 'faith seeking understanding' manner and try to grasp rational explanations and defenses of what we believe, but, as Augustine properly teaches, everyone ultimately 'believes in order to understand.' On ultimate matters, no one ever 'understands in order to believe.' Question #8 is how this relates to the issue of Sola Scriptura that I raised.

Question #8 is whether you agree with Mathison that the distinction between Sola and Solo is invisible to non-Protestants (that is, those who do not already accept the distinction).

Question#9 is whether you agree with Mathison that the truth of Sola Scriptura is self-evident.

Forgive me for getting carried away with these questions - it's just that you are the first Protestant I've found who has been willing to engage with me over these issues so I wanted to get your take on these questions. And Tim, these questions are of extreme practical relevance to me and not merely because I'm being fooled by Cross. Keep in mind that what I wrote prior to the postscript raised essentially the same points before even reading his articles. I'll give an example from my own family to show one of the reasons why this is important. During dinner tonight Esther and I were talking about how under Protestantism all the creeds are provisional based on our interpretations of scripture and that they can, in principle, be overturned should our interpretations of scripture change. I didn't realize that Timothy (my 8 year old boy) was listening until he piped in by asking, "Even the Apostles' Creed?" Immediately I said, "No, not that creed" but then Esther pointed out to me that Timothy had followed the logic of what I had said about Protestantism to its logical conclusion. That is, if our starting assumption is that any Protestant creed is only good in so far as our interpretations of scripture agrees with it, then Timothy is quite correct that even the Apostles' creed could, in principle, be rejected. Now even though a non-Protestant will necessarily use his interpretations of scripture to identify the authoritative community, this is hardly the same thing as not identifying an authoritative community (Protestantism). The two senses of private judgment in the discussion question #6 help here.

MG said...

Tim,

Perhaps this isn't about epistemology and knowledge at all. Some people make it out to be, but that doesn't mean they are presenting the best form of the argument. Maybe the arguments against Sola Scriptura can be disentangled from concerns about "certainty".

Do you agree that there is a difference between (1) judging an outside “authority” (expert) to be reliable by an assessment of whether it is accurate/reliable, and therefore concluding that its judgments are probably correct and (2) judging an outside authority’s decisions to be intrinsically normative and conscience binding, and therefore believing what he or she says on the basis of that inherent authority?

Tim Enloe said...

Robin, I got really busy at work and wasn't able to get back here in decent time. Sorry.

To answer your questions:

I don't agree with Mathison that the distinction is invisible except to those who already accept it. The distinction is easy enough to understand IF one bothers to read large amounts of the classical Reformers and IF one doesn't approach the issues with the typical Protestant historical blinders about the supposed centrality to all of redemptive history of the couple of decades of the Reformation period. That needs some unpacking, but right now I can't spare the time to do it. Perhaps later.

I also don't agree that sola Scriptura is self-evident. The very phrase, as Mathison's work shows, is subject to great confusion in modern Protestantism. And, in my experience, both Catholic and Orthodox converts tend to take their understanding of sola Scriptura from modern Protestantism, reading back into classical Protestantism the distortions of the modern variety. Given how much confusion there is on the very meaning of the term, no, I don't see how it could be self-evident.

As for your questions about the creeds, perhaps I am misreading you, but you seem to be saying that the authority of the creeds is subject to our own individual personal judgments about Scripture's meaning. If you are saying that, then honestly, you are laboring under the incorrect modern understanding of sola Scriptura rather than correct classical Reformation one. Again, this probably needs to be unpacked, but I don't have the time to do it right now.

Anonymous said...

Robin,

This was a very interesting post and the responses are equally so. Many, many of the same questions that you are asking and indeed many of Mr Cross' articles are why I left Reformed protestantism for EO (why EO and not Rome is another question of course).

Unlike Mr Enloe's argument that protestant converts to Rome or EO are thinking skeptically or are crypto pagans, many converts are simply asking different questions than they once did. Are we not allowed to do that? Instead of running around trying to find the denomination that taught basically what I believed (given my Bible and theology books), I started looking for the Church that the apostles founded--like, you know, in history. I asked myself things like: were the apostles and the early Church fathers Reformed Baptists (or pick your denom)? Uh, no. They weren't. Then why am I? Or how about: On what basis does the PCA reject the 7th ecumenical council? If you can answer that one without assuming your own interpretive authority--I'll give you five dollars.

Anyway, these may be the thoughts of a simpleton, but not someone who's been "tricked" and not someone who is a "skeptic." And if it's worth anything, I don't think you're a skeptical crypto-pagan for asking these questions.

God Bless,

Daniel

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