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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