Sola Scriptura and Pope Gregory the Great

On occasion Protestant writers and apologists make claim for their theological distinctives as being found in the fathers. The doctrine of Sola Scriptura is one such case where a good many citations are brought forward to establish that this doctrine is nothing novel. And so Protestantism is introducing nothing new in advocating for the doctrine of Sola Scriptura.  The two major works from which practically all contemporary Protestant cases directly or indirectly depend on are by Whitaker and Goode. If you have read them (I have) there really isn’t much else to read.

One father who is advanced for the case of Sola Scriptura is Pope Gregory the Great (540-604) Gregory is usually enlisted to support a few parts of the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, scripture as the ultimate authority, its material sufficiency and perspicuity. The following citations are some of the usual suspects.

“In silver the power of speaking, in gold brightness of life or of wisdom I used to be denoted. And because heretics are so filled with pride for the brilliancy of their speaking, that they are not based firmly by any authority of the sacred books, (which books are for speaking like a kind of veins of silver to us, because from those identical books we derive the spring and source of our speaking,) he recalls them to the pages of sacred authority, that if they have a desire to speak in a true way, they may from that source draw forth what to say. And he saith, The silver hath the beginning of its veins, and to the gold there is a place, where they fine it.

As if he said in plain words, ‘He that is fitting himself for the words of true preaching, the originals of the cases he must of necessity derive from the sacred page, so as to bring round everything that he speaks to a fountain of divine authority, and in that set firm the edifice of his own speaking. For, as we before said, oftentimes heretics, whilst they are eager to prop up what is bad of their own, broach things which assuredly not maintained in the page of the sacred books. And hence the great Preacher admonishes his disciple, saying, O Timothy, keep that which is committed to thy trust, avoiding profane novelties of speaking, for whereas heretics long to be extolled as if for their excellency of wit, they as it were bring out new things which are not maintained in the books of the ancient Fathers, and thus it follows that whilst they desire to appear wise, they scatter seeds of foolishness to their wretched hearers.” Morals on the Book of Job, Bk 18, ch. 25.

There are a number of things that could be pointed out here, namely that this material is not sufficient to establish Sola Scriptura and none of the conceptual parts of that doctrine are the conceptual property of that view alone. Further, what is missing from these and other citations is the expression of a concept that is a necessary constituent of Sola Scriptura, namely the right of private judgment. That is the view that no ecclesial authority can absolutely bind the conscience of an individual apart from or contrary to that individual’s assent to that authority. As a consequence the individual has the right to trump every secondary ecclesial authority by appeal to his own reading of the scriptures. The buck stops with him and no one else. Without a demonstration that the fathers express that idea, there is no doctrine of Sola Scriptura to be found in them. It matters not whether they articulate any other conceptual parts of the doctrine. But this is rather easy to perceive once one is clear on the essential parts of Sola Scriptura. 

None of the above though directly tackles the question of what Gregory is in fact doing in those and other quotes. The Protestant reads these quotes and they certainly seem to him to be advocating for Sola Scriptura or at least some of its conceptual parts. But this is not I think the case. To see why, we need to take a romp through some history.

The first part of the picture is to grasp that Western writers, both pagan and Christian, exemplified a distaste and opposition to things eastern in the first millennium.

“Although Rome had a long fascination for things Greek, the allure of Hellenism paradoxically carried with it a dark counterpart in Roman contempt for the very same things made the East appealing. While mimicking Greek customs and practices, Roman were nonetheless wary of vacuous Hellenic theorizing and Greek tendencies toward verbal trickery rather than genuine understanding…Rome’ pagan authors had often been scathing in their attacks on Easterners. Juvenal had satirized Antioch’s Orontes river discharging ‘its language and morals and slanting strings’ into Rome’s Tiber, and he lamented the infectious and ubiquitous ‘hungry Greekling’ forever hawking him seemingly endless store of knowledge.  Plautus invented the word pergraecari, meaning to live dissolutely, in order to contrast Roman moral superiority over Greek tendencies to debauchery.

Christian writers centuries later were no less vitriolic. Tertullian was strident in his condemnation of the East’s love for argumentation, conjecture and the ‘useless affectation of stupid curiosity.’ For him such ‘sublime speculations,’ expressed in verbal trickery and an ‘artful show of language,’ inhibited rather than illuminated the search for truth. A disciple of Greece could not also be a disciple of heaven. When Julian, bishop of Eclanum, refused to accede to Pope Zosimos’ condemnation of Pelagius, Augustine produced a polemic containing citations from a host of Latin Fathers ranging from Ireneaus of Lyon to Ambrose of Milan. He then sarcastically taunted his adversary demanding to know whether his sources were less authoritative merely because they were Latins instead of Greeks. Writing in the middle of the fifth century, Salvian of Marseilles complained bitterly that in their moral depravity the Romans of his day were even closer to the Greeks than their fathers had been. Apparently the Christianization of the empire had not extirpated the undercurrent of suspicious and even disdain that still flowed between Latin West and Greek East. Nor had the Justinianic reconquest of Italy effaced it.  The discontented citizens of Rome petitioned the emperor to recall Narses, whom they accused of subjecting them to slavery, declaring that it would have been better for them to continue serving the Goths rather than the Greeks. When Vacis, Witigis’s commander, reproached the Romans for their faithlessness, he did not hesitate to remind them that Goths could at least defend them while the Greeks who had ever come to Italy were ‘actors of tragedy and mimes and thieving sailors.’

Paul the Deacon reflected a sense of differentiation between the Latin West and Greek East in the later part of the sixth century when he called attention to the fact that Maurice was the first of Greek birth to become emperor. Italian antagonism toward the Greeks was not limited to Rome. Writing to the Lombard king Agilulf in 607, the Patriarch of Aquileia questioned whether the Istrian schism [ a western schism rejecting the Fifth Ecumenical Council] could ever be healed in the face of the cruelties shown by the Greeks who, through the exercise of force from Ravenna, had established a more compliant patriarch of Grado. The Ravennates showed a similar contempt for the Greeks. Agnellus reminded his fellow citizens of the venom they had drunk from the mouth of the Byzantine serpent and vowed never to yield to the Greek’s swollen sense of pride. In times of necessity, however, the ancient animus revealed its latent ambivalence and cautiously relented. Rome’s ties to the East had a history characterized by such ambivalence, and that same unease and tension, which simultaneously drew Rome to and repelled it from the East, was to mark its Byzantine years.

Genuine anti-Eastern sentiment must, however be distinguished from the mere repetition of well-established literary topoi to which Western authors routinely resorted when they wrote about the East. Although from the time of Tertullian the West harbored an innate distrust of Greek theological speculation because of its likelihood to lead to heresy, that did not necessarily translate into a wholesale rejection of things Eastern. Western ambivalence toward the East was largely the result of a justified apprehension that oriental infatuation with philosophy generally resulted in doctrinal error. It was not the Greek language, for example, that was objectionable, but rather those who spoke it. Thus the rhetoric of inherited anti-Eastern topoi that permeates Western sources from thepre-Christian period onward must never be taken to mean that all things Greek were somehow tarnished and objectionable. Quite the contrary, even before the end of the sixth century, the East was becoming warmly and increasingly embraced in Byzantine Rome.”

(Ekonomou, Andrew J., Byzantine Rome and the Greek Popes: Eastern Influences on Rome and the papacy from Gregory to Zacharias. A.D.590-752, Lexington Books, 2009, pp. 1-3)

It was into this context that Gregory was born.  The next part is taking into account Gregory’s familiarity with and access to Eastern texts and their theological influence on his thinking. While Gregory was not completely unfamiliar with various Eastern writers, his grasp of them could justifiably be characterized as “weak.” This is in part due to the fact that Gregory’s access to Greek writers largely came from a limited number of Latin translations. Dominant in his theological thought by contrast was Augustine of Hippo with whom Gregory shows great familiarity. This is not to say that Gregory was some parochial dope. He spent six years in Constantinople as a papal envoy to the imperial court. But what is salient is what he left behind in Rome.

“He left behind a city both under siege and under water. Traditional classical education had declined nearly to the point of extinction. The Eastern fathers cold not be read in the original Greek; even intellectuals of Gregory’s caliber had to rely on translations. Pope Agapetus’ grand design for a papal library lay un ruins. Venantius Fortunatus’ claim that Vergil was still read in the Forum of Trajan was the fond delusion of an Italian expatriate who ha already been at Poitiers for half a century and could not have known the city’s true condition.” (Eknonomou, 8)

Gregory’s already somewhat anti-Eastern disposition soured during his time in Constantinople such that during his time as pope he,

“…indiscriminately painted all Easterners as bribers, Simoniacs, heretics and heresiarchs.” Ekonomou, 15-16

Gregory’s disposition did not significantly change when he returned to Rome and later became pope. While there still existed in Rome competent translators of Greek works, the access to Greek texts both sacred and profane was rather minimal. So much so that when Eulogius of Alexandria asked, for example for a copy of the acts of martyrs complied by Eusebius of Caesarea, Gregory replied to the effect that no collection in Rome possessed the work or anything like it. The case of Eudoxius of Antioch is also illustrative of the point. Eudoxius was condemned as an Arian by Constantinople I. Gregory had to write to patriarch Kyriakos of Constantinople in 596 to not only find out why Eudoxius had been condemned but who he even was.

This anti-Eastern disposition influenced him in his privileging not just the see of Rome over against Constantinople, but even of setting the western theological tradition above that of Eastern fathers.

‘The faith, to which Rome was so tenaciously attached, was somehow purer when expounded by the Latin fathers. While Gregory extolled the unanimous spirit that both oriental and occidental patristic writers had shown in condemning the Agnoetic heresy, he could be confident that the East’s position was doctrinally sound only because he had found Western fathers who concurred in anathematizing it. Thus the East’s doctrinal pronouncements were valid only if they found support in Western sources.” Ekonomou, 16.

Between 565 and 577 during Gregory’s tenure at Constantinople he became involved in the dispute surrounding the Apthartodocetist heresy with Patriarch Eutychius. At some point Gregory makes his case before emperor Tiberius II. Western sources (e.g. Bede’s History, Bk 2, ch. 1, Paul the Deacon, Vita PL 75:45) paint the picture of Gregory’s defense of the materiality of the body in the post resurrection state as being something of a decisive turning point in the debate. From Gregory’s telling some simple references to biblical texts not only routs the heretics, particularly patriarch Eutychius, but puts an end to the dispute.

But strangely no Eastern source mentions such a meeting or Gregory’s defense.Whether Gregory’s account is fabricated or Eastern writers omitted it we do not know. Perhaps the truth is somewhere in between. Maybe such a meeting took place but Gregory embellished his account or exagerated his standing or the significance of his argument. In any case, what is important about the affair is the extent that it reveals the impoverished state of the western theological tradition and Rome’s access to patristic texts.

“The Eutychian affair also shows that Rome was, by comparison with the East, an intellectual wasteland. Although Gregory is supposed to have quickly settled the debate, the claim that he had to do so by relying on Scripture alone reflects the educational poverty of the former imperial capital, where, dependent upon Latin translations of whatever meager Eastern sources were available, intellectuals like Gregory retreated to an almost complete reliance on Scripture alone in their writings. In his Liber Regulae Pastoralis, for example, except for a reference taken from Pliny the Elder and the allusion to Gregory of Nazianzen, Gregory’s nearly five hundred citations to authority all refer to the Bible: 261 are drawn from the Old Testament and 237 from the New Testament. He refers to no commentator on the Scriptures, and appears to have had no knowledge of John Chrysostom’s six chapter work Περί ιερωσύνης on the same subject. By taking refuge in the sole authority of the Bible, Gregory could conceal his own educational shortcomings.”  Ekonomou, 12

Now it is certainly possible that Gregory did sincerely hold to the thesis that the scriptures were capable of addressing and resolving for the reader, the complex theological matters in a straightforward and unproblematic way and were therefore superior. But it seems to me that the historical context of his statements at most leaves us with the conclusion that Gregory used such a belief to his advantage. (And of course, that thesis isn’t necessarily distinctive of Sola Scriptura in any case.) But I think that when we take into account the long tradition of anti-Eastern sentiment to which Gregory was exposed along with the extended theological and textually impoverished state of the Roman city and church, and Gregory’s own experience and stated dispositions it seems far more likely that Gregory is appealing to scripture over against the richer and deeper theological schools and texts of the East because he doesn’t have much of anything else to appeal to. It is not then that Gregory appeals to scripture as the only acceptable grounds, but rather he has no other grounds upon which to compete with Eastern writers.

“The ‘supreme distrust of abstract thought’ an theological speculation that prevented Gregory from opening himself up ‘to the theology of the monks of Chrysopolis,’ may have been in part based upon a genuine belief that it was through the Bible alone that God speaks to human beings. But we should not ignore the likelihood that Gregory’s esaltazione della Bibbia, was also a convenient way of concealing his ignorance of a vast body of literature that he simply had not had at his disposal.” Ekonomou, 12.

Gregory’s insistence on scripture over against the bringing out of “new things” from other works then is not an expression of the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, but rather Gregory’s attempt to cloak the West’s weak grasp of the tradition. In other words, Gregory appeals to scripture over other sources because that is all he has by and large to appeal to. It is the only substantial tool he has in his toolbox to use in theological disputes with Eastern figures.

There are a few lessons here to take away. It is simply not sufficient to cite material from a given source. Citations need to be contextualized by situating them within their historical, theological and philosophical context. The key terms will at times require analysis relative to the wider body of writing of a given author. And most important, an actual argument will need to be given.

Furthermore, what is most ironic is that Protestant apologists in using this and other texts from Gregory to support Sola Scriptura seem blinded to the real apologetic value of Gregory’s texts in relation to Catholic claims for the papacy. The fact that Gregory has to appeal almost exclusively to scripture to conceal the impoverished state of western theological learning and because he has almost nothing else to appeal to (it is not as if Augustine carried the same weight in the East as he did in the West) undermines Catholic claims for the papacy. Rome, (let alone the rest of the western churches) was simply not the theological hub of the Christian world standing ready to issue judgments from an informed position as the events surrounding the Fifth Ecumenical Council prior to Gregory make plain. 

35 Responses to Sola Scriptura and Pope Gregory the Great

  1. Jim,

    I apologize for the delay but my computer died and I’ve been building a new one.

    I don’t think I am grounding normativity in the grounds for epistemic justification and that is just the point of saying that the normative content can outpace epistemic justification.

    The distinction between knowledge and divine teaching seems obvious in so far as there is a difference between God teaching something and me knowing about it. That so and so is divine teaching seems like a question of, what is X? which means it is something of a metaphysical question, rather than epistemological.

    Your reframing of the question of if Jesus teaches you something simply moves the question. Why does Jesus’ teaching have a greater degree of obligation? Is Jesus just accurate or infallible? Might that have something to do with normativity? If so, then it isn’t a matter of epistemic justification.

    Sola Scriptura entails that there are no ultimately normative interpretations, that is, no infallible ones. It also entails the thesis that no interpretation can bind the conscience of an individual unless they assent to it. That is, the individual conscience is supremely normative relative to the judgments of other individuals or groups of them, such as a church. I suppose the relevant question is, what do you think the Scripture’s being formally sufficient amounts to?

    I don’t need to run down to who’s interpretation of the given authority for a few reasons. First, I don’t hold to the right of private judgment as a thesis. That is even if we could not know whose interpretation of the authoritative judgment was correct, this would not logically preclude the existence of such a judgment and its attending normativity as it would for Protestants, for that just is part of Sola Scriptura. That all by itself distinguishes the position I am advancing from Sola Scriptura.
    Second, it is not as if the authority doesn’t continue to speak or maintain the judgment. When a Protestant adheres to his own judgment or that of his own church body, he does so on the *normative* basis of his own judgment. Neither his own judgment nor that of his ecclesial body differ in kind or fundamental degree of normativity than that of his own conscience. If it weren’t so, then he could never in Luther like fashion always opt out of being so bound of his church’s ecclesial judgments. When a Protestant makes a judgment about the meaning of a text the normative force of that judgment never rises above that of the individual conscience and this is so even for the judgments of ministers since Protestant ministers are delegated laymen with no greater (in kind) authority than that of the individual conscience. On my model not all judgments made are of fundamentally equal normative standing. What a synod means isn’t necessarily placed on an equal playing field between a layman and cleric, which is why the church proposes different punishments relative to the standing of the person proposing a dissenting interpretation or view. It is a bit like saying that anyone’s interpretation of the Supreme Court’s ruling is on equal legal footing, which is absurd.

    Furthermore, even if it were the case that we were left with a lack of normative judgments about the normative judgment, that would only bring us to an epistemological gap and problem, not a normative one. But it is exactly the normative gap upon which the Protestant position turns, not the epistemological gap. Consequently, even if my position were reduced to saying that there are infallible interpretations which non-infallible agents can misinterpret, this would still not reduce to the protestant position of there being no infallible ecclesial judgments. This is in part why your counter objection does not amount to an effective tu quo que.
    Is the question the amount of text to schematize or is the question about the normativity of the proffered schema? Even making it less won’t make it any easier. If it did, Protestants would have far fewer formal theological terms. Homoousias and such would not be necessary. But they are. Why if the matter is so much simpler and scripture is formally sufficient? In any case, making it less doesn’t make it any more normative.
    As for perspicuity, it seems to me that the scriptures are clear on some things and not on others, a good many are important. But making everything perspicuous will not make the interpretation infallible or supremely normative. Consequently perspicuity is not sufficient to ground sola scriptura. Further, you can make the scriptures as perspicuous as you like, but the real question along epistemic lines is the perspicuity of the mind of the reader and the average reader is not very clear. In any case what is at issue Is not perspicuity but normativity. And what is in dispute here is the claim that there is no normative judgments beyond that of the individual in sum. Establishing perspicuity would not make individual’s judgments normative for anyone else other than the individual who made them.

    Your welcoming me back to the fold seems to be grossly premature. What is at issue is not the extent that one understands the words. I can understand words just fine in physics without an ability to duplicate equations or express critical concepts. If meaning is anything like use, then understanding of terms has a lot less to do with grasp and articulation of conceptual content and more to do with using them with other language users. And that is just the point. I know and so do lots of other people know what it means to say all kinds things theological, that doesn’t amount to a claim that they meet the conditions on knowledge or have a sufficient grasp of their conceptual content.

    Further, the difference between Orthodox teaching and scripture is this. First scripture is constituted via the canon by church teaching and not the other way around, lest scripture become simply another human tradition which is unjustifiably employed to bind the consciences of men. Second, in making a judgment to meet the conditions on knowledge I am not making a claim that precludes the existence of an infallible judgment whereas the Protestant position entails such a denial and it further entails that no judgment can be infallible.

    Further, your remarks go back to the original confusion. I am not denying that Protestants can come to the right interpretation and meet the conditions on knowledge for such a claim. I am claiming rather that their judgments lack the requisite kind of normativity and that this lack of normativity (not its necessity) is entailed by their own position. When I refer to an infallible judgment and make a claim about it, I only need to meet the conditions on knowledge. That basis doesn’t bind the Protestant. The judgment I am referring to which has the requisite degree and kind of normativity does. So my judgments about infallible judgments do not amount to the Protestant position. First because I don’t think my fallibility precludes infallible judgments. Second, because my claims about it aren’t what bind others.

    Your question about Protestant creeds and normativity seems fairly straightforward. Accuracy is insufficient to render my judgment about something divine ultimately normative. Take a law professors judgment about a given case or a supreme court ruling. If the law professors’ judgment is accurate, does it have the force of law? No. If I agree with God, my judgment doesn’t have god’s authority does it? Are theological texts that agree with scripture as normative as scripture? It doesn’t seem like Protestants would say they are. And that is assuming that they are accurate. When we put in place the epistemic distance that generates fallibility and skeptical hypotheses to undermine knowledge claims, the position seems to get worse and not better.

    On the other hand if accuracy were sufficient, then it would seem to follow that my judgments about the bible if they are accurate are also infallible and I am infallible when I utter them, but that doesn’t seem either right or something that the Protestant would wish to claim.

  2. ioannis says:


    I mean that, if we can not know the meaning of the Scripture, because everyone gives its own personal interpretation, what’s the point in knowing that it contains everything necessary for our salvation? I think that the natural order of things is first to comprehend a text and after that to determine whether the text is adequate or not to serve the purpose it was written for.

  3. Jim says:

    Well said Canadian. I give you the last word (except this one) 😉

  4. Canadian says:

    My point is that not everything the fathers say is normative and they do not have to agree in everything, though an Ecumenical Council is normative, and the church of those Councils has authority. So why the heck do you not have icons on those bare walls!!!! 🙂
    The Church Christ founded is to be submitted to because she is a divinely ordained teacher and the pillar and ground of the truth. And Christ has promised to lead her into all truth, be with her until the end of the age (no gaps for centuries), the gates of hell will not prevail against her. This is not blind obedience, but intentional submission to authorized leadership. Schism is not an option. Not one church in the NT chose their own leadership.
    And Sola scriptura always reduces to Solo scriptura, because though you may leave your tree to look for somewhere to worship, you have already determined to only submit to those you agree with.

  5. Jim says:


    Thanks for the thoughtful response but I don’t think it gets at what I was saying. In the context of a criticism of Sola Scriptura and the normativity of assent to divine teaching grounded in the authority of the Orthodox church, it’s not “unity” I’m looking for, as such. It’s merely the interpretation that I’m to assent to. If you can’t point to it, the argument, however it works in theory, is superfluous.

    In that case Sola Scriptura (in the original sense, not ‘me and my bible, sitting in a tree…’) stands as the least mediated access to divine teaching. As much as I like hops in my beer, I’d prefer less of them in my access to divine teaching. 🙂

    ioannis, are you speaking theoretically? Because simply pointing to it would refute me. Zeno may have convinced people that motion is impossible through argument about a flying arrow never reaching its target. The refutation would have been to have him stand about 10 paces from my bow. So here I stand. 🙂

    PS Canadian, Actually several of the ancients argued against the other positions so it’s not likely they held them at various times in their preaching. I’m not sure about all though.

  6. ioannis says:


    If there’s not an unambiguous and normative interpretation of Scripture, then, what’s the point of Sola Scriptura?

  7. Canadian says:

    Your question about Matthew 16 is misleading I think. You want to know why there is not uniformity. There can be unity without uniformity. And it is not per se a question about the authority of the pope, either. Different father’s, just as we all do including Protestants, use the same verse to defend and describe different things at different times. If I am not mistaken, it can be shown that the same father would in fact describe the “rock” in different ways at different times (correct me if I’m wrong).
    Look at the Ec. Council’s lofty language regarding the bishop of Rome. This is always the case when the pope is Orthodox but this was not the case in the 5th Council (to which Perry alluded) where pope Vigilius is spanked by the Council, proceeded without him, removed his name from the diptychs, and declared he would condemn himself by his own writing by allowing heresy to persist. When a pope becomes un-Orthodox, the flowery language is gone. This is revealing in reference to your quest for a uniform attitude regarding that verse and others.
    Also, why is it when Orthodoxy is challenged by you guys you cry out “where is your uniformity” (as if we should have a pope) yet when chiding Rome the cry tends to be “where is your freedom from uniformity under your pope.”

  8. Jim says:

    Joel, do you really think Chrysostom stands alone? About Peter, Origen agree’s with you, Augustine (who changed his position at one point) doesn’t. Tertullian agrees, Eusebius doesn’t. Ciprian does, Cyril doesn’t (and please, there’s no reason to point out who qualifies as a Father and who doesn’t – these are witnesses to valid positions within the early church).

    And, by the way, those one “one side” didn’t necessarily agree with each other either. For example, some thought the statement “upon this rock” a reference to Peter’s *words* while others thought Christ was referring to Himself.

    And, I get quite a different story about what that verse means exactly when I ask the Western branch of succession, or the High church Anglicans. I haven’t checked with the Copts.

    So, in fact there is certainly not “a recognizable (if not *complete*) unity on the issue.” Not in history, not in succession, not anywhere.

    And, that’s not ‘bait,’ though it’s obvious what my point was without the need to respond. Feel free to select another verse you think you have access to the universal interpretation of. I suppose there’s no quibbling over “Go up thou bald head” but probably not much else.

    And you’re misusing Vincent’s dictum. He explicitly said it cannot be applied to every doctrine or interpretation but ONLY to matters pertaining to the “Rule of Faith.” Which is why your application of Vincent is minimalist. It’s effectively “All we can say is what everyone believed everywhere, at all …..” which, in practice, yields the “Rule of Faith” anyway – something Protestants confess repeatedly.

  9. Andrea Elizabeth says:

    I agree with some of Jim’s points. I think one rightly picks the Orthodox Church because it lines up best with the Scriptures. Submission to the authority of the Church and her interpretation of the disputed parts is Scriptural. And there I agree with Canadian and Joel that Protestants miss the boat in the area of submission to Bishops. But if they did decide such submission was Scriptural, then they have to decide which churches have the most scriptural bishops, which is where the interpretation of Matt. 16:18 comes in.

    The Greek thought of the day which influenced the councils was the language used to work out the disputed parts. If a Bishop was educated in the Greek Schools, then he knew the philosophical language beforehand and could use it to help draft the resolutions of what Scripture taught. But if he didn’t, he could work backwards from his knowledge of Scripture to understand and agree with what the others were proposing. Was the Greek thought necessary to best define the explanations and binding teachings? I don’t know, because that’s the way it went down and became binding. To invent another school of thought would be speculative and definitely not normative. Was Greek thought better and more trustworthy than any other options? My Scriptural belief in God’s sovereignty makes me think it must have been. 🙂

  10. Joel says:

    Jim, if it helps at all, the completely and absolutely universal interpretation of Mt. 16:18 is that Christ gave special authority to his 12 disciples, of which Peter had some kind of special place and authority – and that this authority would go hand in hand with the preservation of the fullness of the (correct) faith. It would also be universally held that this authority was passed on by the Holy Spirit in valid ordination to the successors of the apostles, who thus held the authority to teach, bind and loose sins, excommunicate certain people, etc.

    Now, it is perhaps not universal (or at least not *perfectly*) whether Peter’s ‘special role’ is to be read in terms of the modern papacy, but I would nevertheless humbly suggest that your bait of Mt 16:18 actually completely undermines your existence as a Protestant. Because whatever was universally held – and there is a recognizable (if not *complete*) unity on the issue – it does not look favourable to the Protestant perspective. John Chrysostom’s interpretation may look nice to a Protestant. But he was a bishop.

    Anybody can correct me if I am off the wall here.

  11. Jim says:

    Feel free to drop Vincent’s dictum from my request – it was quoted out of context anyway and doesn’t actually apply to scriptural interpretation in general. And, don’t think I didn’t I notice that the interpretation requested wasn’t forthcoming.

    The bottom line, as you say, is difficult to acheive, if you can’t point to the authoritative interpretation I’m to assent to. AND the grounds of your belief that you should submit to the Orthodox authority was based on your own interpretation of history and argument. Pardon me for assuming the perspicuity of Scripture is greater than the perspicuity of either history or the fathers – and for reaching a decidedly different opionion on both.

    What say you, “Sic [vel] non?” 😉

  12. Canadian says:

    Nice try. The Vincentian canon is a guideline by an individual father, not a conciliar statement or a scientific method. The bottom line is that you wouldn’t submit to any ecclesial interpretation of any scripture verse unless you first agree. That is the issue.

  13. Jim says:

    No. My submission was not because I agreed with what I found in the Orthodox Church. Of course I used my rational abilities to apprehend what kind of church history and scripture testify to and when I found her, I submitted.

    This was all that I meant.

    The NT and post apostolic church carried normative interpretive authority why do the Protestant churches not claim it?

    Please provide for me the unambiguous, ‘believed everywhere, by everyone, at all times’, apostolic-succession preserved, and therefore normative, interpretation for, say, Mat. 16:18?

  14. Canadian says:

    No. My submission was not because I agreed with what I found in the Orthodox Church. Of course I used my rational abilities to apprehend what kind of church history and scripture testify to and when I found her, I submitted.
    Interpreting data is common to us all, but my interpretation is not normative it just locates God’s means for normativity. The Orthodox do not sort through the Tradition like Protestants do scripture, they submit to the church (persons) Christ founded as scripture commands. The NT and post apostolic church carried normative interpretive authority why do the Protestant churches not claim it? Protestant creeds do not define heresy with certainty or forbid schism or procure unity or issue anything binding… unlike the historic and NT church.

  15. Jim says:


    Just a note, you seem to be reading the wrong intentions into my questions. Also, my copy of “Free Will (Oxford Readings in Philosophy)” just got here. 🙂

    You ask: “If I have tied my source of normativity to the grounds of epistemic justification, what would be the problem with that exactly?” – Nothing that I can see. It was more for my clarification. I was confused by what appeared to be a distinction between ‘knowledge’ proper and ‘divine teaching’ (resting on the authority of the Orthodox church). Both are species of ‘knowledge’ proper – the distinction with respect to normativity is in their justification. I’m not trying to argue that certain propositions don’t carry different obligations for assent. I’m trying to clarify (for myself at least) the source of that difference.

    And so, *of course* if Jesus tells me something I feel that I’m more obligated to believe it than if I assent to it based on some other grounds for its justification.

    Let me take a step back now. I simply do not understand the distinction you’re making about Sola Scriptura and normativity. I think, rather, the Scriptures carry obvious normative force. More so than councils or the Orthodox church precisely because they are divine inspired teaching. So?

    You’ll immediately ask “who’s interpretation?” And I asked the same thing of your authority. Are the Scriptures really less perspicuous than the whole of holy tradition? There’s at least significantly less text to schematize.

    You said you are “obligated to assent even if [you] do not understand the *ideas* expressed.” Certainly “one can understand that God makes Mary a Virgin Mother” (as you say) ONLY to the extent that one understands (that is, can rightly interpret) the words. That’s what’s at issue. And so, you gave away the store in your last paragraph. Substitute “Scripture” for “Orthodox teaching” and welcome back to the fold. 😉

    Again, I don’t understand your former point about Luther and normativity. Normativity is external (as you say). How then are Protestant creeds only as normative as, say, everyday evidentially supported suppositions? They are as normative as they accurately reflect divine teaching (which is what most of them say) – which has the obligation for assent that God provides it – external and independent of my own suppositions.

    Canadian’s description makes my point about the foundation for submission to Orthodoxy. His (her?) submission to Orthodoxy was caused by his interpretation of history and Scripture – though he is wrong about both 🙂

  16. Canadian says:

    It is important to understand that scripture and history testify to a church that has the type of interpretive authority the Perry is describing. The NT church displays capabilities that no Protestant church dares claim for itself and it must be asked why? The post-apostolic Conciliar church inherited and assumed this same authority, based on the promises of Christ to her. This is why apostolic succession is more than just an empty claim of connection to the past, but rather the identity of the personal continuation of a people and a faith once for all delivered to the saints.
    All of your faculties will be fully engaged to find the Church of Christ, but when you find her you submit to those that have the rule over you, this is completely different than finding the church that teaches the closest to what you yourself have discovered in the scriptures coming from a paradigm that is itself in serious question (sola scriptura).

  17. ioannis says:

    “The fact that Gregory has to appeal almost exclusively to scripture…..undermines Catholic claims for the papacy. Rome, (let alone the rest of the western churches) was simply not the theological hub of the Christian world standing ready to issue judgments from an informed position as the events surrounding the Fifth Ecumenical Council prior to Gregory make plain”

    Very good argument!

  18. Jim,

    If the Orthodox interpret with divine authority, then it would be true that knowledge entails a lower degree of normativity or so it seems to me.

    If I have tied my source of normativity to the grounds of epistemic justification, what would be the problem with that exactly? Should I “tie” them somewhere else?

    I am not making a claim about proportionality and justification relative to normativity. If the degree of normativity entailed by JTB + ? were proportional to the source of justification, what would we say about the normative content of mere true belief without justification? I can’t see that we could say anything and such normative content would be impossible on those grounds. Yet it seems to me that true belief can have normativity attached to it relative to the divine.

    But even on your proposal, just substitute the Orthodox church with Jesus standing in front of you telling you x, y & z. Can you see a different in normativity there or no? If not, why not?. If so, why so?

    Saying that my beliefs that have ultimately normative content or character are “ultimately rooted” in something less normative seems entirely vague. The question is not whether they are “rooted” but whether they are dependent on them in a way that precludes them from being ultimately normative or not. Why think that any kind of dependence so precludes their having ultimate normativity? Are your beliefs about the inspiration of scripture “rooted” in things you are more sure of or know better or can know at all?

    And I don’t think I denied that my knowledge claims could be overturned in a number of ways. I believe I sketched that already. I could find out that they were false, that my justification for them was bad, even though they were true, or I could reject them and make a mistake by thinking some of the above when in fact I did have adequate justification and/or the beliefs were true. That is possible, which is just to say that I am not an infallible knower. But I fail to see how that precludes there from being an ultimately normative teaching and an entity that produces it.

    When you say that I take the conditions for producing an ultimately normative judgment are “internal” do you mean internal to me? If so, then I certainly don’t.

    You ask if one is obligated to assent even if one doesn’t believe that God infallibly works through such and so entity. I certainly think yes. Are atheists obligated by God’s teaching in the Scriptures even when they reject that God has so infallibly done so?

    You ask how one assents to a judgment that one doesn’t understand. In many cases I think this is quite common. People do this with the sciences and expert testimony all the time. It is not as if one doesn’t understand the sentences uttered. Everyday people can understand statements in say quantum theory about the nature of the universe without having the slightest grasp of what they amount to. Likewise, one can understand that God makes Mary a Virgin Mother in so far as they understand the words and the sentences without the slightest grasp of how it is that it is so or what constitutes the truth maker for it. Moreover, people young and old often accept church teaching without understanding how it could be so. This is so for any religious grouping.

    You ask who interprets the Orthodox teaching for me and the answer is straightforward, me. I do it. Could I misinterpret it. Yup. Does that mean I can’t know it? No. Does it mean that there is no infallible teaching? No. Does it mean I am not an infallible interpreter and hence not the church in sum? You betcha. I can’t see how that is problematic.

  19. Jim says:

    reyjacobs, let’s face it, you simply find the doctrine repugnant.

  20. Jim says:


    But supposing that [Protestants] did in fact meet the conditions on knowledge. In those cases given the lower degree of normativity entailed by knowledge, I am not obligated to assent with their view unless I also meet those conditions, that is, unless I also know it. The normativity of knowledge then seems far less than the normativity of divine teaching which obligates me to assent even if, for example, I only meet the conditions for true belief and not knowledge.

    It seems like you’re saying “knowledge,” being “justified true belief,” entails a “lower degree of normativity” (which I read as: results in a lesser obligation to assent to) than simply “true belief” in Orthodox interpretations of divine teaching. If so, I don’t believe you’ve done anything more than tied your source of normativity to your grounds of (epistemic) justification?

    So, it seems like you’re saying the (amount of?) normativity entailed by “justified true belief” is proportional (in some sense) to the source of “justification?” So when your source of “justification” is “internal interpretation” of the facts (Scripture, history, arguments about authority, etc.), it carries a lower normativity than “justified true belief” where the source of justification is an authority such as the Orthodox chuch. In this case I see no qualitative difference between the two.

    Also, you seem to have just admitted that your *beliefs* that carry greater normative force (those that the Orthodox church obligates you to believe) are ultimately rooted in a less normative knowledge that brought you to the Orthodox church to begin with. (This last statment is a reference to the *beliefs* and not the normative force of those beliefs). So, regardless of the objective normative force of the Orthodox teaching, your submission is still epistemological – it could be overturned by defeating your “less normative” beliefs.

    Also, I’m stiff confused. For some reason I get the impression when reading your comment that you the “conditions on producing an ultimately normative judgment” are internal, but I’m sure you wouldn’t agree with that. When you say something like:

    if we took the belief that god infallible works through some mechanism, like a council, then I am obligated to assent even if I do not understand the ideas expressed in its judgment.

    I want to ask, am I obligated to assent even if I DON’T believe that God infallibly works through mechanisms like a council?

    … I am obligated to assent even if I do not understand the ideas expressed …

    How do you ‘assent’ to a judgement you don’t understand? ‘Understanding’ seems to be a prerequisite to ‘assent.’ And, of course, this leads to the obvious question: who interprets the Orthodox teaching for you?

  21. Jim says:

    “Then again, perhaps ‘reyjacobs’ proves Perry’s point afterall.”

    I’m curious as to what point I might have inadvertently proved!

    Really? Reading Scripture and concluding that you shouldn’t “accept the antichristian doctrine of original sin” lends at least anechdotal support to any argument against the perspicuity of Scripture.

    Then again, it’s possible I’ve misinterpreted where you’re coming from – I’m only here now and then so I’m not familiar with other things you may have written.

  22. JIm,

    The topic of private judgment is in the ball bark. to be fair, I discuss it in the post. I do not mean to be so strict as to squelch reasonable discussion on related points. I am just trying to more or less keep things on topic. If you wish to talk about why you think the distinctions I made are wrongheaded then have it.

  23. Jim says:

    My apologies for being off topic again. If you’ve covered what’s in your comment above in another post, feel free to link to it. I can move to an older post.

    Otherwise I’ll try to keep an eye out for a future one that deals with this topic (normativity and epistemology).

    I do disagree with the distinctions you make but I’ll look for a more appropriate place to discuss them.

  24. Jim,

    By bind the conscience I think you have roughly tagged the idea I have in mind.

    As to assent, the secondary authority has normative force for the individual because the individual puts themselves under it. That is, the normative force of the authority relative to the individual is dependent on an act of the individual. By contrast, one is obligated to obey God for example even if one does not place oneself under God’s authority. There is no opt out card. Generally I mean submission, but as it seems to me that this will entail some degree of intellectual submission, the former seems to entail the latter.

    Your attempt to construct a tu quo que turns on a straw man. I did not argue that one had to have an ultimately normative faculty or communication from one to meet the conditions on knowledge for a given claim. I think Protestants can know the right interpretation of a given text. I just don’t think as far as their distinctives do that they in fact meet those conditions, either because their justification fails or because the claim is false or both.

    But supposing that they did in fact meet the conditions on knowledge. In those cases given the lower degree of normativity entailed by knowledge, I am not obligated to assent with their view unless I also meet those conditions, that is, unless I also know it. The normativity of knowledge then seems far less than the normativity of divine teaching which obligates me to assent even if, for example, I only meet the conditions for true belief and not knowledge. This is why Protestant confessional documents can only obligate me if I agree with them, which indicates that unlike the bible materially speaking, they carry only the normative force of reason, at best, and that is assuming their truth. If I don’t agree with them, then they can’t obligate me. By contrast, if we took the belief that god infallible works through some mechanism, like a council, then I am obligated to assent even if I do not understand the ideas expressed in its judgment.

    Consequently there is a difference between the meeting the conditions on knowledge and meeting the conditions on producing an ultimately normative judgment. To identify what is the entity that produces ultimately normative judgments I do not need to be capable of producing an ultimately normative judgment since the question here is epistemic. I only need to be capable of meeting the conditions on knowledge. It is clear now why your attempt to construct a tu quo que turn on a conflation between what it takes to know something and what it takes to produce something. Since I can only do the first and not the second, my judgment that the Orthodox Church is that entity does not amount to an infallible judgment, which is why my judgment doesn’t obligate you unless you meet those epistemic conditions too.

    This certainly means that it is possible for me to be mistaken in this judgment. I could fail to meet the conditions on knowledge in a variety of ways. The claim could be true but my justification be inadequate or fallacious or I fail in meeting whatever ends up being the fourth condition on knowledge or the claim might be false for example. But the existence of such an entity is still obviously independent from any epistemic pitfalls I might make. But of course, just because I could be wrong, it doesn’t follow that I am wrong. And I think I am right.

    Hence my decision to be Orthodox was grounded in my meeting the conditions on knowledge. Luther’ stance by contrast was grounded in the normativity of his conscience’s judgment which trumped that of pretty much the whole church. In this way private judgment can and does trump any and all ecclesial authority in classical Protestantism.

    None of this goes to the point of the post, namely that the material used from Gregory to support Sola Scriptura doesn’t in fact support Sola Scriptura, but rather is explained by other considerations that I cited.

  25. Jim says:


    Thanks for the clarification on Normativity. I have a question.

    That is the view that no ecclesial authority can absolutely bind the conscience of an individual apart from or contrary to that individual’s assent to that authority.

    What does this mean? By ‘bind the conscience’ do you mean ‘create an obligation to believe certain propositions?’ or perhaps ‘create an obligation to obey certain prescriptions?’

    In either case, how is this related to the individuals “assent” to that authority? Do you mean, ‘submission’ to that authority? Or do you mean ‘intellectual agreement’ with that authority? Or ‘assent’ that said authority HAS authority to ‘bind the conscience (in either sense)’?

    Also, no matter how you answer the above (unless there’s a way to take it not covered) I don’t understand how it follows that “even successful access to [the authorial intent of scripture] won’t necessarily generate the required degree of normativity for an interpretation to amount to divine teaching.”

    And, I’m also not sure how (as I tried to make clear to Vincent) you haven’t just moved the problem one step further. I take it you made a decision to move to Orthodoxy. And I supposed it was based on some personal consideration and interpretation of history, scripture, argument, Fathers, prayer, etc? Who’s authority did you invoke to submit to that authority? I don’t suppose it was random.

    I’m sure you can see that, being Reformed, I don’t suffer from the same conundrum.

    Keeping it to the topic you requested as much as possible, I will only ask if this one cover Greek/Hebrew thought in Barr?


  26. Jim says:

    Thanks Perry. As usual I’m going to need to read it a few time.

  27. Vincient,

    The issue as it seems to me with private judgment isn’t about responsibility, but normativity. On the classical Protestant schema the individual’s judgment is ultimately normative over againt any secondary authority. Secondary authorities can only bind the conscience of the individual if that individual assents to it. In this way it is dependent on it and not the other way around. Ecclesial authority is just the collective authority of individual consciences since there is no aposotlic authority passed down through ordination.

  28. Jim,

    I think you misinterpret my statement. I do not deny that scripture is to be taken in reference to subordinate authorities. But since those subordinate authorities are fallible, they can be challenged and trumped by a direct appeal to scripture itself against them by any individual, hence Luther’s appeal. If this were not so, there would be no difference between Sola Scriptura and the High Church Anglican view of Prima Scriptura that the Laudians held over against the Puritans. Further if this were not so, then no Protestant confession could be revised on the grounds that it was contrary to Scripture. If Scripture is the only infallible rule of faith, then no secondary rule is above challenge and revision.

    In critiques of Sola Scriptura there is no Postmodern hermeneutic. The claim is not that the meaning of the text is derived from the “play” between the sign and the signifier and is therefore there is no authorial intent. Rather, the claim is that while there is authorial intent, one’s access to it is first mediated in such a way as to make error accessing it possible and second that even successful access to it won’t necessarily generate the required degree of normativity for an interpretation to amount to divine teaching. The twin claims are about epistemology and normativity, not about a lack of authorial intent due to there being no essential connection between the sign and the signifier as in say Derrida’s Grammatology or End of Book. In short, when Protestant apologists make this charge it is based on a misunderstanding of what Postmodernity is. People argued against the right of private judgment long before modernity, let alone postmodernity was around and they all believed in authorial intent.

    As for your third point, it amounts to an assertion with no demonstration and so I can dismiss it out of hand. If you think I failed to demonstrate my claims, then you’ll need to show it.

    As to your fourth point, suppose I was using a historical grammatical method. It only follows that I can demonstrate my view even using the tools of my opponents. And second, it might be useful in some cases but not do so well with inspired texts.

    As for the Hellenic backdrop of the East, that will include the Apostles and all their successors and all the churches they founded for century upon century, which will include most of the PAtristic sources Protestants wish to appeal to to support their claims. This will lend it self strongly to a kind of apostasy claim and undermine the Protestant claims about the perspicuity of scripture. And there is no hard and fast Hebrew mind/Greek mind division to overcome as has been ably demonstrated in the literature by Barr and others.

    “Covenantal” in the Reformation sense isn’t some notion that fell out of the sky into the apostles lap. People have had a Covenantal notions long before the Reformation. They just weren’t notions as strongly rooted (or at all) in a more voluntaristic gloss on divine power with Conceptuialist (if this be true of Scotus at all) or Nominalistic taxonomic views. Augustine for example has a Covenant theology, but it surely isn’t the Covenant theology of say Bullinger. The Reformation notion has a history and is a product of development. Consequently, the cleavage between covenantal and ontological just isn’t there or is only there for those systems that take in my view a more Pelagian view of the relation between God and man, namely that it is by law as an extrinsic aid that amounts to grace (and a created one) that God relates properly to man, or so it seems to me. Isn’t that after all what forensic imputed righteousness amounts to, that man properly is related to God by law? Further. It is not as if a forensic and ethical relation between God and man has no metaphysical import. It does. There is no non-metaphysical view to be had. It is rather as Quine wrote that some have jungles and some deserts.

    As for the incarnation and the cross, it is not the case that the Orthodox are not centered on the Cross. The incarnation is the ground floor as it were, because God always willed to become incarnate and dwell with his people and this is something the Fall was meant to prevent. The Cross then holds a pinnacle place since it is just at that point where death is taken hold of and wrested away from the devil as an enemy. By his divine power Christ maintains the hypostatic union even though his body and soul are divided from each other, they are never divided from his divine person. And he further transforms the role of death away from annihilation towards resurrection for the entire race. He raises IT up on the last day, per Jn 6:39.

    On the “Covenantal” view of the Cross, since its value is ultimately derived from God’s decision that it have the value that it does, the act could have been done by Adam just as easily as Christ, and so paves the way for Unitarianism. Or so it seems to me. In any case, I’ve written about this all before and I’d like to keep the discussion on Sola Scriptura/Papacy issues if we can.

  29. Jim says:


    In your postmodern world, who interprets the interpreter? Your converstion to Orthodoxy was who’s decision based on who’s interpretation of what?

    And were is that ellusive interpretation of Scripture (and who would interpret that for you if one existed for any given passage)?

    Smoke and mirrors, for sure. One wonders where exactly it’s comming from though (and who’s interpretation of the evidence we’re relying on).

  30. This is a great reflection, thank you.

    Sola Scriptura might insist on the consultation of Fathers, councils and confessions… But at the end of the day, the responsibility falls to the individual to ascertain the right understanding of Scripture. Every Protestant confession makes this concession. Period. It’s a smoke and mirrors game to bring up these secondary sources, when the FINAL APPEAL is always one’s interpretation of Scripture.

  31. Jim says:

    Then again, perhaps “reyjacobs” proves Perry’s point afterall.

  32. Jim says:

    I have read Goode. I have two issues.

    … is the expression of a concept that is a necessary constituent of Sola Scriptura, namely the right of private judgment.

    This is typical, and I would have assumed, above you. Sola Scriptura implies that the Scripture is the sole Rule of Faith and Practice, but certainly not in any way it can be taken, nor without reference to other subservient authority.

    Second, when this point is used as a Catholic apologetic is presupposes Postmodern hermeneutic. The force of this argument assumes that meaning in textual interpretation is derived solely from the reader’s interaction with the text. Obviously, Sola Scriptura assumes objective meaning can be communicated textually. Given the sheer volume of words you write, I’m assuming you do also.

    Third, thanks for the history lesson but you didn’t make your point. As I read I expected to be painted a historical context that would have provided me with a backdrop for Gregory’s words that would have shifted the “objective meaning” I was to take from his words (see, I knew you agreed with Sola Scriptura on the point above). This didn’t happen.

    Fourth, if I’m right about the point above, you assumed Gregory’s words could be understood using a “historical grammatical” hermeneutic. Given the Covenantal and Hebrew backdrop of the New Testament writers, given the Hellenistic backdrop of the east, does one really wonder why or how the east could (for example) view the entire plan of redemption from an Ontological viewpoint thereby seeing the focal point of all history as the Incarnation, as opposed to the Covenant sacrifice of the cross?


  33. revj,

    First, this is not a post about original sin. Try to make comments that are germane to the post.

    Second, refrain from making unsupported assertions and make actual arguments to support the positions you wish to advance.

    Third, in general, play nice.

  34. reyjacobs says:

    So long as you both accept the antichristian doctrine of original sin, it doesn’t matter whether sola scriptura or tradition is the right path — you’re both still wrong.

  35. […] Commandments. L… »See All Of This Item By Clicking Here!« ☆ ☆ ☆ 2) Sola Scriptura and Pope Gregory the Great […]

%d bloggers like this: