Michael Patton has begun a series defending Sola Scriptura. Instead of clogging up his blog with my long comments, I have made them into a post here.
If Scripture is the only infallible rule of faith, who is the judge that is to apply the rule? And what authority does such a judge possess? It seems to me that Sola Scriptura includes the thesis of the right of private judgment, namely that every believer can make normatively binding judgments and that only a believer can make judgments that are binding upon his or her conscience. Further, if as Michael writes that advocates of Sola Scriptura hold that there were two sources of authority for the first say 400 years of the church, the one being tradition which was a summary, albeit a fallible one, of what was written by Scripture and accepted by the universal church, where is such a summary to be found? What document is a token of this summary? And what constitutes the “universal church?” Where is there an example of the “universal church” in the first four hundred years? If Protestants walked into that church, would they recognize it as their own in polity, worship, etc.? I don’t think so.
If Scripture during this period was in the process of being “recognized” doesn’t this imply that Scripture itself wasn’t part of the faith universally recognized? If so, this would imply that the church for the first four hundred years, not to mention afterwards, didn’t believe in Sola Scriptura. I am not clear why “word of mouth” is reliable in the first hundred years of the church, but not afterwards. Sure verbal communication can be corrupted, but so can texts. (Que the Gnostics) And I am not sure why one would think that the “word of mouth” apostolic kergyma became “increasingly obscure and unreliable.” Is it so in Ireneaus of Lyon by 180? What examples are sufficient to generate that idea? Further, it too often seems to be the case that these models always appeal to some kind of apostasy and yet the church seemed to do an adequate job with issues much more sophisticated as with Christology and the Trinity. Therefore isn’t this an a forteriori reason for thinking that the church was reliable in “word of mouth” teaching during the same period? St. Basil seems to think so during the period of canonization that Michael notes. And if tradition is becoming obscure in this period, doesn’t this undermine the reliability of Gospel authorship since no Greek manuscript prior to 200 of the Gospels has a traditional designation?
And isn’t the question, with what authority did the church “recognize” inspired works? Appealing to “recognition” only moves the question, it doesn’t answer it.
And Patton seems to give away the farm when he seemingly admits that the apostolic teaching was passed on both in scripture and via tradition for the first 400 years. If this is so, why jettison what had been apostolically instituted practice and belief? It seems far too convenient. If the rule of faith was transmitted via tradition, this seems to falsify Sola Scriptura, namely that Scripture is the only infallible rule of faith. Of course, Patton will argue that tradition wasn’t infallible but I don’t think this helps. First, if the latter wasn’t infallible, why think that the former is, if infallibility isn’t a necessary condition for reliably transmitting the apostolic teaching? If the rule of faith can be fallible, why think that Scripture must be? On the other hand, if tradition is unreliable, this undermines the belief that Scripture is infallible since it is by those very means that Scripture was transmitted, identified and the basis upon which textual corrections we made against various heretical readings. Added to this is the fact that various councils claim for themselves divine inspiration. But even if these things can be gotten around, it would still be the case admittedly that the rule of faith for the first four hundred years wasn’t only Scripture and wasn’t only infallible and that would be sufficient to falsify Sola Scriptura.
As for the 1984 statement between Anglicans and Orthodox, that hardly counts as significant progress between the Orthodox and Protestants. Anglicans at best are a mixed bag and have never to my knowledge formally accepted Sola Scriptura as understood by say Knox or Calvin. Consequently the statements,
“Any disjunction between Scripture and Tradition such as would treat them as two separate ‘sources of revelation’ must be rejected. The two are correlative. We affirm (1) that Scripture is the main criterion whereby the church tests traditions to determine whether they are truly part of the Holy Tradition or not; (2) that Holy Tradition completes Holy Scriptures in the sense that it safeguards the integrity of the biblical message” (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1985), 50-51.
These may be compatible with Sola Scriptura, but they are insufficient to imply that this is what the Anglicans had in mind since it is the church that tests such things, something that is at odds with the right of private judgment. Much the same could be said for the statements cited from Lutheran and Orthodox discussions. Furthermore, most ecumenical documents tend to be overly optimistic and paper over rather than resolve or dissolve differences. Unless one can point to actual conceptual overlap, such statements are expressions of good will and optimism and not much else. This is so given the fact that the Orthodox condemned Lutheran distinctives and the Lutherans have never ceased to toss the Orthodox under the bus of heterodoxy along with Rome. Citing what this or that Bishop says in Orthodoxy seems to rest on a mistaken idea of authority in the Orthodox tradition. Just because a bishop says something doesn’t by itself settle the matter. There have been infallible laymen in the Orthodox Church as well. Patton seems to foist upon the Orthodox a more Catholic understanding of a magisterium.
This is a favorite dodge of Classical Protestants. At the end of the day, Sola Scriptura reduces to Nuda Scriptura and here is why. On the former, no tradition, no magisterial body can settle matters with anything more than fallible authority. Therefore, the judgments reached in this way are provisional and revisable and therefore represent a practical stability, which can always be re-opened. There isn’t any formal theological statement found in any Reformed confession that isn’t itself open to possible revision, and this includes the canon itself. This is what has justified Reformation and post Reformation Classical Protestants from attempting to revise the canon of Scripture. At the end of the chain of authority is the individual. No magisterial authority can trump private judgment in a normatively binding way. If this wasn’t so, then the Reformers would have had no basis on which to judge that the church’s judgment was wrong and non-binding. Positing Scripture as the ultimate source does nothing to touch this point. And to be clear, I am not arguing that everyone doesn’t judge for himself what he takes to be true. Rather, private judgment is the idea that the supremely normatively binding judgments on the conscience can only come from the individual himself (barring direct divine private revelation). This is what it means to say that everyman is their own Pope. Consequently, to argue that I am not infallible either does no work here since to know I do not have to be infallible, but to form judgments which can bind the consciences of others, I would need to be. Knowledge doesn’t entail infallibility but the latter idea of normative judgments to bind the conscience of others does and this is exactly what Sola Scriptura denies and why every doctrine is revisable, both in form and matter. The worries about certainty really only mask the worry about doctrines being provisional. The question is not about knowledge, but about normativity, which skeptical arguments only serve to bring out and motivate. You can see the mistake in questions on Patton’s blog (which reflect his own understanding),
“If someone can establish that they did so-or if God spoke and established a new authority, authenticated the same way the first prophets were-then of course we should submit. As for lacking an authority to tell me if my interpretation of 2 Thess. is correct: Please, tell me. What infallible authority has told you that your understanding of the Orthodox Church’s teaching is correct? When did you speak to them? And when you spoke to that authority, how do you know that you understood them correctly?”
Why think that I need to be infallible to understand infallible teaching? I don’t. But I would need to be infallible to judge in a way that was normatively binding on the consciences of other men and that seems fairly easy to establish in terms of what was in the mind of the church at councils. I could misunderstand the church’s judgment on any given matter, but that doesn’t entail that the church’s judgment isn’t infallible, unnecessary or superfluous.
Often Protestants write that for some writings included in the canon there was never a doubt as to their authenticity. But I am not clear on how we get from the idea that their authenticity was never taken to be dubious (so far as we know) to the conclusion that they in fact are authentic. Is it possible for the church never to doubt the authenticity of a book as inspired by God and yet it turn out not to be inspired? On Protestant principles I don’t see why not. This is therefore not a sufficient condition for authenticity and neither is it a necessary condition seeing that many doubted books are part of their canon.
It also seems to me that there are clear examples of doctrines held by Protestants that cannot be justified on the grounds of Sola Scriptura. Often Protestants are quick to attack Rome on say the immaculate conception or the assumption of Mary as lacking in terms of scripture and tradition. The argument being that Rome fails its own criteria. That could be so, but it seems to me that Protestants are often not sensitive to the fact that they too fail their own criteria on a confessional level with no small or peripheral doctrines. As I have noted previously, the Filioque and the doctrine of divine simplicity lack Scriptural warrant and were pretty much taken over carte blanch without serious question from Rome. Making excuses for the Reformers by claiming that they had bigger fish to fry doesn’t wash for a host of reasons. The doctrine of God is no small fish and in the case of the Filioque it was no small dispute. Further, their descendents have had five hundred years when they have been challenged on it and to think about it. It is possible to try and give an exegetical defense of the Filioque but I think those attempts fail miserably. And given the Protestant view of human depravity, they cannot appeal to natural theology and philosophy to bridge the gap as Rome attempts to do. But I only need one case so even if I grant that the Filioque could be defended a justifiably on scripture alone, such is not the case for divine simplicity, which is purely a philosophical doctrine. Nor will it to do to argue that a layman isn’t strictly bound by such confessional statements, for the clergy certainly are. What is more, this still leaves untouched the problem of a non-scriptural doctrine being imposed without being justified by Scripture alone. I’d think that they’d want to make a serious effort at altering their confessions and expunging extra-biblical doctrine from their bodies, especially at the level of the doctrine of God. I’d wager that such an attempt would be met with fierce resistance to the point of excommunication of such persons.
Jugulum, a Protestant commenter argues that noting as he does that sola scriptura took shape over time and wasn’t the position of the church for the first hundred years or so isn’t problematic since it wasn’t the position of Adam and Eve either. I don’t think this argument washes. Adam and Eve were in an originating position that the early Church wasn’t. You wouldn’t expect Adam and Eve to be in the same position. The church on the other hand you’d expect to hand down teachings from the apostles and if Sola Scriptura was a teaching of the apostles, you’d expect to find it, even in the ruff in that period or afterwards, but you don’t. You can find plenty of statements from the Fathers, ante-Nicene and Nicene that Scripture is supreme and infallible, better than other writings, etc. but that is not sufficient for the idea of Sola Scriptura.
Jugulum’s bald claim that God never established an on-going body of judges and authoritative interpreters is not just a bald claim but is arguably false. Certainly in the OT there was such a body, which could only be trumped by a prophet extraordinarily commissioned (directly by God) or ordinarily commissioned, with the attestation of miracles such as the case with Elijah. Jesus in Matt 23 seems to recognize that the Jewish leadership had such an interpretative role. In fact Jesus establishes his own Sanhedrin in the 70 disciples. Further Paul gives ample evidence of a divine gift being had through ordination (2 tim 1:6) Such a belief is as well attested in the early Church as baptism, the eucharist and the deity and humanity of Christ. (The best place to start on Apostolic Succession is Felix Cirlot’s, Apostolic Succession: Is it True? ) And not to mention the fact that the earliest council was believed to have divine guidance and to be the mechanism for resolving disputes in a normatively divine manner. Patton notes that more traditional minded Christians will argue as I have done above, but he notes that this isn’t an inconsistency in the Sola Scriptura position and he is correct, but that misses the point. Some model can be consistent but false and if there is material evidence to the contrary, as above in summary, then that is reason for thinking that the model is false. Simply noting that the Sola Scriptura position isn’t inconsistent on that point is an insufficient defense.
And interestingly, the same Protestant commenter writes,
“3.) God never established on-going infallibly-authoritative human guides for the body of Christ-neither a magisterium, nor successors with the same kind of apostolic authority, nor a consensus of the whole Orthodox church, nor unwritten passed-on tradition (i.e. tradition from people other than the actual apostles).”
How is this consistent with his earlier claim that the creeds and tradition in general functioned as summaries of the faith of the “universal church?” These seem to me to be mutually exclusive. Protestants can’t maintain both simultaneously. If there was a consensus of the whole Orthodox Church and/or an unwritten and passed on tradition, then his claim here is false and supports some sort of more traditional position than the Classical Protestant one. On the other hand, if there was no such consensus and passed on tradition then Patton cannot plausibly maintain his gloss on tradition such that his position collapses to Nuda Scriptura. And to claim that none of the other divinely appointed authorities “aren’t around anymore” seems to raise more problems than it solves for we cannot argue that being an apostle is entailed by being inspired for Luke and Mark were inspired but not apostles. The cessation of the apostolic office wouldn’t imply a lack of divine inspiration in the church, which is exactly and explicitly what the ecumenical councils that Protestants profess fealty to claim for themselves. I have to wonder what is the nature of the authority that Protestant think that ministers today operate by-human or divine? And if divine, to what degree, if any? And where does this divine authority come from and how is it transmitted? What is the biblical justification for this view? In short, if Protestants were right it is hard to see todays ministers as continuing the apostolic ministry. In any case, even if it were the case that none of the divine authorities weren’t around anymore, Sola Scriptura still would not be the default position given that the latter entails the thesis that Scripture is formally sufficient and the right of private judgment. Even if Scripture were the only guy left standing so to speak, it doesn’t follow that it is formally sufficient or that everyone enjoys the right of private judgment.
A commenter responds to an objection to the effect that it seems strange for God to establish these extra biblical authorities only for them to die out. He responds with largely rhetorical questions, namely that it doesn’t seem odd that there were no prophets during the period between the testaments and that Jesus was an infallible authority when he was here but after the Ascension we didn’t have that identical source of authority in the same form. He then asks what seems odd in thinking that the Apostles had authority that didn’t transfer from one person to another.
Doesn’t this presuppose a Protestant canon, namely that the Apocrypha isn’t inspired? Even if there were no inspired writings during the intertestamental period, how does it follow that there were no prophets? Does John the Baptist count? According to Jesus (Matt 11) John as Elijiah seems to be part of the OT order of things. And it may be true that after the Ascension we didn’t have the identical source of authority in the same form, but the question is whether we had the identical source of authority at all. And isn’t it Patton’s contention that we did at least in the ministry of the apostles? If the apostles, why not those to whom was given a portion of their ministry? If Jesus was sent by the Father and Jesus in turn sends the Apostles, why can’t the Apostles send out others with a portion of their commissioning? Why else would Paul for example talk of the gift given to Timothy via ordination? We certainly have some reason in the biblical text for thinking that some of the apostles authority and ministry was transferred and this belief was so strong that it ranked right up their with core Christological teachings from the earliest times.