Yesterday, I wrote about the authority of Scripture. I am often asked what has kept me from embracing the Catholic Church in its present state? I have many friends who’ve converted to Roman Catholicism. I have many supporters of this mission who are Catholic. This happens because these friends and donors know I am serving the whole church in a unique and ecumenical context. The fact is that I have great love for the Catholic Church. And I am clearly not an anti-Catholic. Further, I have no desire to become a polemicist who engages in anti-Catholic evangelicalism. I am a serious ecumenist and as such I love all Christians – Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant. I long to see full communion between the great ancient churches of the Christian faith. Because of this love and longing I will continue to engage with these kinds of issues for the rest of my life. It is because I love Christ and all his people that I do so.
But I am sometimes asked, What keeps you from becoming a Catholic? There are several reasons I remain a Reformed Protestant but a major one is related to this issue of authority. Over time I believe the Catholic Church developed a two-source view of authority. I believe this view is wrong. I believe this view was correctly challenged by the magisterial Reformers of the sixteenth century because the errors it had produced were harmful to the health of the church. I also believe, as I began to show yesterday, that this two-source view is in conflict with the teaching of the early church fathers as well. This point will be strongly opposed by good Catholic friends. The danger in this debate is that we will simply trade quotes and throw verbal bombs. Good ecumenism will not do this. It will listen respectfully and keep the discussion moving forward. In the end a person has to be persuaded in their own conscience by the facts they read and seek to understand. I have wrestled with these facts deeply. I remain persuaded that the Catholic claim that final authority residing in two-sources is wrong.
For my Catholic friends I urge you to respect me even if you disagree with my reading of this important issue. I know most of you do. Catholic academics clearly engage in this dialog without the heated rhetorical devices of many untrained apologists. For my Protestant friends, I urge you to not give up this precious truth in the midst of the modern polemics used against it by popular Catholic authors and speakers who often rail against it by using stereotypes and misrepresentations. What is at stake here is very important, so important that at least for now it hinders the union of our respective Christian churches. (It should not hinder unity even while we cannot attain union with this disagreement on the table!)
Yesterday, I cited some sayings from early church theologians. Here are a few more that I find extremely helpful:
What the Scriptures have not declared, you will never find.
(St. Athanasius, De S. Trin. Dial.)
It is a mockery to ask questions, or to make discourses, on that which is not written. (St. Athanasius, Epist. Ad. Serap.)
In the Holy Scriptures alone is the instruction of religion announced—to which let no man add, from which let no man detract—which are sufficient in themselves for the enunciation of the truth. (St. Athanasius, adv. Gentes init.)
Do not believe me simply, unless you receive the proof of what I say from Holy Scripture. (St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catech. A.D. 348)
Keep that faith only which the Church is now giving to you and which is certificated out of the whole of Scripture. (St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catech.)
Concerning the divine and holy mysteries of the faith, even the most casual remark ought not to be delivered without the sacred Scriptures. (St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catech. IV.12)
It is evidently a falling away from the faith, and a proof of great presumption, to neglect any part of what is written, or to introduce anything that is not written. (St. Basil c. 329-379, bishop of Caesarea, de Vera Fide)
How can we use those things, which we find not in the Scriptures!
(St. Ambrose c. 339-397, Offic. Lib. 1, c. 23)
When we receive money, we do not trust to those who give it to us; we wish to count it ourselves: and when there is a question of Divine things, would it not be a folly rashly and blindly to receive the opinions of others, when we have a rule by which we can examine everything? I mean the Divine law. It is for this reason that I conjure you all, without resting in the slightest degree on the judgment of others, to consult the Scriptures. (St. John Chrysostom c. 347-407, Homil. xiii. in 2 Cor.)
When you shall see the wicked heresy, which is the army of Antichrist, standing in the holy places of the church, then let those who are in Judea head for the mountains, that is, those who are Christians should head for the Scriptures. For the true Judea is
Christendom, and the mountains are the Scriptures of the prophets and apostles, as it is written: “Her foundations are in the holy mountains.” But why should all Christians at this time head for the Scriptures? Because in this period in which heresy has taken
possession of the churches there can be no proof of true Christianity nor any other refuge for Christians who want to know the truth of the faith except the divine Scriptures. Earlier we showed in many ways which is the church of Christ, and which heathenism. But now there is for those who want to know which is the true church of Christ no way to know it except only the through the Scriptures. Why? Because heresy has everything just like the church. How, then, will anyone who wants to know which is the true church of Christ know it in the midst of this great confusion resulting from this similarity, except only through the Scriptures? The Lord, therefore, knowing that there would be such a great confusion of things in the last days, commands that Christians who…want to gain steadfastness in the true faith should take refuge in nothing else but the Scriptures.
Otherwise, if they look to other things, they will be offended and will perish, because they will not know which is the true church, and as a result they will fall into the abomination of desolation which stands in the holy places of the church. (Traditionally ascribed to St. John Chrysostom, glossa ordinaria 49th Homily, on Mat. 24)
We deny not those things which are written, so we refuse those which are not written. That God was born of a Virgin, we believe, because we read; that Mary married after she gave birth to him, we believe not, because we read not. (St. Jerome c. 347-c. 420, adv. Helvidium juxta finem, Tom. IV. Part II)
In those things, which are plainly laid down in Scripture, all things are found, which embrace faith and morals. (St. Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana A.D. 427, Lib. II, c. 9)
The canon of the Scriptures is perfect, and in itself suffices to the full, and more, for all demands. (St. Vincent of Lérins, Adversus profanes omnium novitates haereticorum commonitorium A.D.434)
Bring me not human reasonings and syllogisms, for I rely on the divine Scripture alone. (Theodoret of Cyrus c. 393-466, Dial. I. Atrept.)
I have provided only a small sample of hundreds of such early church texts. When I began to wrestle with this issue of biblical authority some years ago, and then re-engage it through my deep love for the whole Christian church over the last fifteen years or so, I came to a deeper appreciation for a sound and balanced understanding of the truth of sola scriptura. Often Protestants hold very bad views of sola scriptura. This does not disprove the true doctrine but it should make us careful about how we state it and teach it.
But this pursuit has also caused me to see many of the more common errors taught by Protestants who hold to this principle. Some Protestant evangelicals make amazing claims about the Bible, especially when it comes to interpreting Scripture. In their desire to avoid various forms of interpretation (allegory comes to mind) embraced by the whole church throughout her history they sometimes fall into grievous errors. One such egregious error was made by a now deceased professor of mine who also became a personal friend. He once lectured for our ministerial meeting here in the Chicago area. In his lecture on Scripture he said:
We don’t criticize the apostolic use of the Old Testament in the New because the apostles were inspired but we cannot follow it because they were wrong.
I am not misquoting my departed friend. So amazing was this claim that I have discussed it now and again with friends. (This professor actually wrote a book on the Old Testament in the New!) When my dear friend, Fr,. Wilbur Ellsworth, once a Baptist and now an Orthodox priest, brought his up to me a few days ago I was mortified by its conclusion once again. I asked myself, “What made a brilliant man make such a statement?” What my friend was seeking to uphold was a particularly evangelical view of how to interpret the Bible literally. I believe in this case his view of Scripture had gone wrong.
I am again reminded that Catholic and Orthodox Christians read the Bible as the Word of God. This is why I am especially delighted when I see all of us reading and discussing Holy Scripture. For now we disagree about the nature of biblical authority but we can agree on far more than we realized not too long ago. This will remain true so long as we keep talking and listening. By talking and listening we can still learn and so long as we are learning there is room to grow in knowledge and the grace of God. A true ecumenist doesn’t have all the answers but knows the way forward. After all the central message of Holy Scripture is the same for us all – God is love and Christ died for our sins, was raised on the third day, and ascended to the Father from where he will come again at the end of this age. He thus came to redeem all who trust in Him!
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There are different understandings of the nature of Scripture and how it operates within the context of tradition by Catholics. I suspect there would be many Catholics who would say they have one organic source that informs their spirituality, and Scripture being the ultimate one (prima scriptura). From their perspective, they would also warn against the many dangers and abuses of sola scriptura (which like innerancy, is not even specifically taught within Scripture itself!).
At the end of the day, I suspect the primary obstacle for most people continues to be the magisterium. Many protestants are simply opposed to it period. My problem is not with the magisterium per se but how it has and often continues to operate within the life of the church. When I look at the way of Jesus and servant leadership, I can only say what I hear from other Catholics saying:
1. The magisterium needs to decentralize its power.
2. The magisterium needs to take the bowl and towel of a servant rather than function from a position of power and control.
Of course, the same thing could be said about Protestant churches. Just look at mainline denominational leadership or the smaller contexts of local church politics.
May God bring healing and unity to its fragmented and wounded body!
I won’t concede Catholics have two source authority. I would hope that we all have one source of authority, Christ. It plays out in different ways. For Catholics its scripture, tradition, magesterium. For Protestants its scripture and personal interpretation. You have shown that quite clearly. You and your friends have the same scriptures but come to different conclusions. To say that others are doing it wrong is to engage in perpetual division not unity.
I meant no offense my brother. “Two-source” language is even used by Catholic scholars, as I am sure you know. I thus did not mean it in any polemical fashion. And I do agree — Jesus is our COMMON single source of all authority in heaven and on earth! If you read my blogs day-by-day you would know that I do not perpetuate divisions but rather promote unity continually. I hope you will read me and see this for yourself. If anything I am routinely accused of being too “Catholic friendly” by passionate anti-Catholics.
I very much appreciate the dialectics here. You responded to John’s original article with a clear summary that I find helpful, especially in understanding a Catholic view of authority. As such, I would respectfully disagree: John’s saying that others are doing it wrong, combined with your comments, moves my mind in a direction of understanding that can foster greater unity. I am glad that John has taken (takes) the time to be even a slight bit polemical. As you both have demonstrated here: Dialogue that features boldness to say what one is thinking — and gracious trust to listen objectively — fosters unity. Christ was bold. He asked questions. Paul was bold. The Pharisees murmured amongst themselves. Polite silence fosters perpetual [insulated] division. Thank you both for speaking up. I feel more equipped to work alongside — and to speak of these things.
I have two questions. First, are you aware of the way Catholics understand the patristic quotations you cited? You cite them as if you think they provide stand-alone evidence for the Protestant denial of the authority of the oral Tradition, the denial of magisterial authority, and support for sola scriptura. In other words, you cite them as if Catholics (as Catholics) cannot make sense of them, and therefore as if you are unaware of the Catholic way of understanding them.
Second, if for each of the Church Fathers you cited it turns out that they believed or practiced one or more Catholic doctrines/practices that you think are not found in Scripture, which would you do: (a) accuse each of these Fathers of contradicting themselves, or (b) concede that the quotations you have cited are not advocating sola scriptura? If you choose (a) over (b), then on what non-question-begging basis?
In the peace of Christ,
Yes, I am aware of the way Catholics understand the quotations that I used from the Fathers. I do not believe these quotations, and thus the Patristic writers in general, are of one mind about the source of authority being in the church except as they all recognized Scripture to have final authority over all other forms of authority. Rome believes the Fathers to be of one mind about the authority of the magisterium. I do not read understand the Fathers in this way at all. And many patristic scholars would agree with me and others with you. This is, as I said, a clearly divided opinion. Did the Fathers all teach sola Scriptura? Not as I would define it (given the development of Christian tradition and thought since the early centuries). But I do not believe they teach authority as Rome defines it either.
As for your second question we would need to take this matter doctrine by doctrine. A good example would be purgatory. I do not believe the Fathers are of one mind about the biblical teaching on this subject. Thus I I do not agree with Roman Catholic dogma on it for this very reason; i.e. it is not the clear teaching of Scripture or the universal view of the Fathers. On the early doctrines of Mary we would, to use yet another example, be a lot closer to one another (as were Luther and Calvin too). It is the latter Marian dogmas where we would disagree. Once again this is due to your view of the ongoing authority of the Magisterium.
While Orthodoxy is closer to Catholicism on many of these arguments it too reads the Patristics in ways that differ from Rome. This, to my mind, should give all of us some pause and foster much more discussion and openness as we proceed toward Christ’s Kingdom.
I understand your intention in claiming that “Scripture has final authority.” You want to recognize and affirm (rightly) that Scripture is God-breathed, and therefore has divine authority. (And I agree.) But that claim overlooks the hermeneutical problem created by positing *final* authority in a book, a problem the Church Fathers did not overlook, because they understood the authority of ecumenical councils. Keith Mathison explains the hermeneutical problem:
“All appeals to Scripture are appeals to interpretations of Scripture. The only real question is: whose interpretation? People with differing interpretations of Scripture cannot set a Bible on a table and ask it to resolve their differences. In order for the Scripture to function as an authority, it must be read and interpreted by someone. According to “solo” Scriptura, that someone is each individual, so ultimately, there are as many final authorities as there are human interpreters.”
There is no possible unity among Christians unless/until we agree on this authority question. (I think you and and I agree there.) But, claiming that Scripture is the *final* authority only creates as many forms of Christianity (and almost as many divisions) as there are interpreters. So, whose interpretation of Scripture is authoritative?
The Catholic position is not a “two-source view of authority.” (I think you are thinking of the two ways or channels in which, according to the Catholic Church, the Apostolic Tradition is handed down to us: Scripture and Tradition.) Rather, the authority is three-fold, as the Catholic Catechism explains:
“It is clear therefore that, in the supremely wise arrangement of God, sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture and the Magisterium of the Church are so connected and associated that one of them cannot stand without the others. Working together, each in its own way, under the action of the one Holy Spirit, they all contribute effectively to the salvation of souls.” (CCC 95)
According to the Catholic paradigm, Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium are like a three-legged stool; none functions rightly without the others. And Mathison’s statement explains why, at least, Scripture cannot function on its own as an authority; it needs an authoritative interpretive and teaching instrument. Otherwise, there will be chaotic disunity regarding what is the true doctrine, and what is heretical, etc.
In the peace of Christ,
Your understanding of Tradition still depends on the Magisterium being the “third” leg of the stool, a requirement neither the East nor the Protestant West concurs with as you clearly know. Further, it must be noted that you have cited Keith Mathison, a Protestant who agrees with my view not your own (unless he has become a Catholic and I am unaware of this change). Mathison would agree that all interpretations must be primarily rooted in Scripture, not Tradition or the Magisterium. While tradition,with a small t, has a very big role in my view (ancient faith has priority over modern in most instances though not all) it still must humbly bow before “the teaching of the Apostles,” which is found in the Sacred Scripture they left us. I am not about to begin a discussion on Canon here so please do not go in that direction. I am well aware of the issue and the great debate and do not agree with the Catholic view of the matter. Again, the Christian East holds a different view of the way the Canon came to be and how it works in the Church.
As you readily recognize this issue is not solvable by constant appeals to our core stance since this is where we still do not agree. My reason for writing this post was to simply say that I remain a Protestant for very specific reasons. I obviously believe those reasons are compelling. I have tried, again and again, to put myself Scripturally, emotionally and rationally “inside” the Catholic argument and still find it very unconvincing.
We have made great strides in biblical exegesis as we’ve worked together in the text of the Bible. I hope this will continue and believe that it will since the Vatican is now quite serious about biblical studies and their importance. My prayer is that this seriousness will filter into the whole Catholic Church. When this happens millions will come alive to the apostolic teaching of the Bible who are presently untaught regarding the role of real faith and its relationship to discipleship. This would be a great day for us all, Catholic and Protestant.
Will this resolve our disagreement about the three legs on the stool? Not likely. But God knows. Meanwhile we can and must seek Christ together in every way we can. What we can do together we must do together. I believe that is more than we presently know and the Spirit will keep leading us toward one another because we love the same Christ.
I wish for Protestants a deep recovery of ancient Christian faith rooted in the creeds and the Fathers. I also desire a new sacramental life that takes us into the mysteries of the faith often missed by our rationalistic biblicism. This is my hope, my prayer, my personal passion for the whole catholic church.
There are two questions here on the table. One is whether the authoritative Apostolic Tradition was transmitted orally, as well as in writing (i.e. Sacred Scripture), and is found in the Church Fathers, and in the life of the Church. I’ll put that question on the back burner, though perhaps we can come back to it. The other question is this: Whose interpretation of Scripture is authoritative? And it is still not clear to me what your answer to that question is.
To me, that question (i.e. the second question) is crucial, because the answer to that question, and how we can come to agree about it, are absolutely essential for the unity of Christians.
Also, I want to say that I am very grateful for your patience, and your sincere desire and efforts for Christian unity.
In the peace of Christ,
John, my mind is exploding as I read this and your other post about the supreme authority of Scripture. I feel that I am in a rather unique position, sort of stuck in between three major forces: Catholicism, Protestant evangelicals and Korean authority. Perhaps this is partly why, until just recently, I had no desire to learn the great doctrines of old. It is so refreshing to hear someone promoting the supreme authority of God’s written word, and willing to live by it!
Bryan, thanks for your efforts to clarify. With respect to the quote you posted from Mathison, please note that his statement and your comments do not actually describe “authority”, but rather perceived authority. A Protestant view would be that Scripture contains sufficient (inspired, inerrant, infallible) authority. (cf. the Westminster Confession’s Chapter 1, in particular: “The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, depends not upon the testimony of any man, or Church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God”) A point of emphasis here is that Scripture contains the Authority. [Sinful] Man (and Magisterial men) are the interpreters and will variously get it right and wrong. However, the Authority itself is contained in the Scripture, not in the reader’s interpretation. As such, we are called back again and again to review and meditate on what we have read. In this sense, Mathison is a bit careless when he says “there are as many final authorities as there are human interpreters”. While humans govern themselves somewhat through their interpretations, they do NOT do so with FINAL Authority. God holds this Authority, and offers it to us graciously through His word.
Consider this: A teacher has authority in a classroom. That teacher makes the rules and even posts the rules on the board. The teacher also enforces the rules. However, each student interprets the rules and acts accordingly. While the teacher steps out for a meeting in the hall, as interpreters, the students appear to be the many ‘final authorities’, but this is only an appearance. The law remains unique and unchanged. If Johnny kisses Margaret on the lips with her permission, the other students might help him to understand whether this is a violation of “keep your hands to yourself”, but regardless, neither their interpretation nor his is Authoritative. The teacher, upon returning to the classroom, might help to clarify — the rules and the authority were never dependent upon the subjective views of the interpreters. Still, all along, they could appeal to the written rules as the source for knowing the Authority. Johnny’s opinions about whether kissing Margaret is okay are more reliable if he has made an effort to understand the communicated rules.
As such, the question is an epistemological one. This is why Protestants profess “Sola Scriptura” — because they KNOW that it necessarily contains God’s Authoritative Word, and they KNOW that men often do not. So, Mathison is correct, all appeals to Scripture are appeals to interpretation. More specifically, they are appeals to efforts to interpret God’s written Authority with the help of His Spirit and fellow believers. Thank God for His gracious gift of perspicuous text and for His opening the blind eyes of our rock-hard hearts and the talents of our brothers and sisters so that we can glimpse some of His beautiful Law and Grace.
Glad that joined the conversation. In light of what you said, here’s my question: Whose interpretation is authoritative? I’m trying to determine your answer to that question from what you wrote, and it isn’t clear to me what your answer is.
Is your position that no one’s interpretation is authoritative? (Of course obviously we agree that the Holy Spirit’s interpretation is authoritative, but that just pushes the question back to: Who has the Holy Spirit’s interpretation?) You appealed to the WCF — but if the WCF authors had no authority, their opinion is no more authoritative then anyone else’s, including mine. It is just one more opinion of men in the sea of human opinions.
It seems to me that if the idea is that no one’s interpretation is authoritative, then by default one’s own interpretation is the authoritative interpretation [i.e. the Holy Spirit’s] for oneself. I’ve encountered this hundreds of times in Protestants. (I was raised as a devout Pentecostal / Evangelical.) In my experience interacting with Protestants and especially Evangelicals and Pentecostals, every person claims that the Spirit has guided them to their present interpretation, and yet in so many cases they each have incompatible interpretation of Scripture, and this leads to the further fragmentation of Christianity. So this seems to me to be a faulty theological epistemology — I mean, it allows persons to justify their own [false] interpretations of Scripture by appealing both to the inward guidance of the Holy Spirit, and to the perspicuity of Scripture. (I say ‘faulty’ because when two interpretations are incompatible or contradictory, at least one of them must be false.)
If Scripture were really sufficiently perspicuous for the unity of what John referred to below as the “whole catholic Church,” then John wouldn’t have needed to write his recent book, because Christians wouldn’t be divided, at least all Christians who read the Bible. And resolving theological disagreements would be as easy as one of my seminary professors suggested many years ago: “you just point to the text,” he would say. I’ve learned since then that that simply isn’t sufficient to resolve such disagreements, because part of what causes interpretive disagreements is what we (each) bring to the text.
But let me ask you a question about perspicuity. If the perspicuity thesis were false, and had been falsified by the empirical evidence of five hundred years of Protestant fragmentation, what would be different from the present situation? How would things look any different if the perspicuity thesis had been falsified by the facts of Protestant history?
In the peace of Christ,
So if I understand this post correctly, you are saying, “I cant become Catholic because (among other things) I believe in the sole authority of scripture. Hey and guess what, so did many of these Church fathers.. let me show you some quotes.”
So to begin, I have a question. As you were putting together this blog and considering these quotes, did you at any point ask yourself, “Ge.. I wonder how the Catholic Church has managed to maintain their view of consistency if these quotes show otherwise.” Did you look up a Catholic response to these quotes? Or were you content that they supported a view you already held?
I am a bit confused because you said that the danger in these debates is people simply trading quotes. But is exactly what you are doing it. Your picking and choosing particular quotes and ignoring other quotes which give a proper understanding of the view that a particular Church Father ACTUALLY held. Below I have listed a quote supporting a Catholic position on authority from almost every Church Father you cited in attempt to show their supposed sola scriptura position.
So which is, did they believe in the sole authority of scripture or scripture, tradition and a magisterium? It seems a bit unfair and disingenuous for you to pick particular quotes from these Church Fathers and automatically assume that they did not believe in the authority of tradition and the Church as well. This is bad biblical and historical scholarship. The fact that the quotes I provide below argue against a sola scriptura view of the Church fathers doesn’t argue against the validity of sola scriptura in general, but it at least calls into serious question one of the goals of this thread. If you are a honest man, which I believe you are, then I would hope you would cease from misreporting the Church Fathers.
What you did with these Church Father quotes is similar to what many protestant apologist do in trying to argue from scripture the validity of sola scriptura. They present verses that seem to support sola scriptura (2 Timonthy 3:15) but will completely ignore quotes that serious challenge such a view (1 Timothy 3:15; 2 Thessalonians 2:15; 2 Timothy 2:2). We need to look at the whole of scripture just as we need to look at the whole teaching and or views of the Church Fathers.
I think your heart is in the right place, but ecumenism needs to be grounded in truth and not in twisting what a person actually believes or in watering down the teachings of another faith so that they are easier to incorporate in to your ecumenical goals. Please have enough respect for other Christian traditions by representing them correctly and honoring their beliefs (e.g., stop promoting protestants take the Euchrist in a Catholic Mass).
** We must recieve the traditions and the orthodox teaching from the Fathers, unless we wish to become illigimate sons. [St. Athanasius, De Synodis 47]
** The word of the Lord which came form the Ecumenical Council at Nicea remains forever. [St. Athanasius, Synodal Letter to the Bishops of Africa, 2]
** Learn also diligently, and from the church, what are the books of the Old Testament, and what are the books of the New. [Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, 4, 33]
**For I hold it apostolic to abide also by the unwritten traditions. [St. Basil the Great, The Holy Spirit, 29, 71]
** Hence it is manifest that they did not deliver all things by epistle, but many things unwritten, and in like manner both the one and the other are worthy of credit. Therefore, let us regard the tradition of the church also worthy of belief. Is it a tradition? Seek no farther. [St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on 2nd Thessalonians 4, 2]
St. Vincent of Lérins
**Fortify our own belief in two ways; first, by the authority of the Divine Law, and then, by the Tradition of the Catholic Church. [St. Vincent of Lérins, Commonitory 2, 4-6]
Read the quotes I provide in my post. Ask yourself, did the Church Fathers really believed this or is this simply what John Armstrong *thinks* they believed. Always search for a Catholic response to an extraordinary claim that seems to go against a long held claim by the Catholic Church – especially when the author does not provide one.
For instance, anti Catholics would like you to believe that the Catholic Church banned the laity from reading the bible in the ecumenical council of Toulouse. Interestingly, #1 the council was local and not ecumenical and #2 the council banned the reading of particular bible version that taught Albigensian heresy.
If an attach against what the Church teaches seems a bit extraordinary.. most of the time it is false or based on twisted truth.
I am delighted to converse – perhaps converging towards harmonious understanding. Thank you for your excellent courses of inquiry. You have presented a number of points / questions, including one ‘simple’ one (re: perspicuity). Let me attempt to address each point sequentially, even if this does harm to the potential priority of any one item. I will attempt to focus on the epistemological facets. I will address the authority for the “visible church” and the “invisible church”.
No [human] one’s interpretation can be considered the ‘authority’. Neither can the interpretation of a bunch of people. Only God has and knows absolutely authoritatively what is true. That said, we CAN know elements of His truth because He graciously reveals it to us – through the incarnation of His Son, His incarnate Word, His Spirit (note: I did not conjoin these with an “and”, since they are essentially the same). Moreover, through the perspicuity of scripture, the illumination of the Spirit, and the fellowship of believers, interpretations CAN be “authoritative”. Let me be clear: authoritaTIVE, i.e., having the NATURE of containing authority because God’s Word contains His authority and an interpretation of it can deliver its meaning to His people. Of course, the inverse is also true: an interpretation can appear authoritative and yet be false authority. We encounter this as early as Genesis 3, in which the serpent twists God’s word. Using this example, one can see that God’s word about the tree was absolutely authoritative and the serpent’s interpretation was not. Adam & Eve (who walked with God and heard His Word firsthand) had bad hermeneutics / epistemology: namely, they allowed an interpreter to give them truth – and thereby authority – that met their own subjective desires rather than seeking to understand God’s meaning of His word in accord with His character. Adam & Eve’s sin can be viewed as essentially an epistemological one: they sought to be equal to God by illicitly knowing what He knows rather than knowing what He has revealed to them. This illicit knowledge grab is endemic to the human condition and drives us to say things like “I don’t care what she said, I know what my spouse is up to” instead of “I want to understand her”, and “I know that homosexuality is wrong and they are all going to hell” instead of “my heart is crushed because my read of scripture (the only authoritative source) is that it is wrong and I want others to consider what God appears to have said on the matter”. Humility and circumspection are key factors of interpretation. Style and word choice aside, actual humility and circumspection BY DEFINITION render any interpretation (including by ecumenical councils) NOT authoritative. God’s word is the only true authority. It is faith alone that gives us certainty of meaning. And this faith comes from Him. Logically, therefore, the authority is contained in His word and is authoritatively reliable through our individual faith (the evidence of things (knowledge / authority) not seen). Response to this authority can be seen in Hebrews 11:8 (“By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed”), so we know that through faith we can discern God’s word authoritatively. While scripture is available to all, scripture is clear that this faith is individual. This discernment is individual. And scripture is clear that we [individually] can have faith to be assured of the authority of His word and confidence in what it means. I take this to mean that while we might look to others to assist us in our interpretation, we must not actually rely ultimately upon anything but God’s word and Spirit-given faith. And we must never allow others (or ourselves) to assert authority when leveraging something other than God’s revealed will (scripture). I believe that this was Luther’s in[famous] point (“unless convinced by scripture and plain reason”). This is why many Protestants believe that it is fine to align and subject oneself to the temporal / practical “authority” of a congregation / denomination unless and until there is a deviation from the teachings of scripture.
I certainly concur that the WCF has no [ultimate] authority. Nor does the Apostle’s Creed. Still, in a contractual sense, these confessions of faith can be respected and held as mechanisms for expressing constitutional authority for an organization. In other words, “you can only belong to our club if you subscribe to these”. Their brevity and condensed nature helps to simplify discussions around what teachings are aberrant and unwelcome. They can serve as foundational elements for defining heresy, where ‘heresy’ is defined as teachings that controvert what an organization has already established through faithful studying of God’s word. Note that “heresy” is defined by “the church” not by God nor the Bible. The church rules authoritatively on what violates its OWN corporate reading, NOT on what is actually wrong. In other words, heresy (and doctrine) are the dominion of the [visible] church authority. Actual truth is the dominion of God and His word. This is why many speak of the visible church and the invisible church. Man knows the first. God knows the second. Man can know with assurance that he is part of the second, and through his personal faith and discernment of scripture he can know what is required of him, but he ought to recognize that he cannot know with certainty who else is part of the second and therefore cannot be certain that anyone else speaks with authority for the second.
You said that “this leads to the further fragmentation of Christianity”, sure, this is the nature of a fallen world. We see entropy frequently in the history of God’s people. And “So this seems to me to be a faulty theological epistemology — I mean, it allows persons to justify their own [false] interpretations of Scripture by appealing both to the inward guidance of the Holy Spirit, and to the perspicuity of Scripture. (I say ‘faulty’ because when two interpretations are incompatible or contradictory, at least one of them must be false.)” Your analysis here is very intriguing. The doctrine of perspicuity does not claim / require that all of Scripture is equally or sufficiently clear. It claims that it is clear enough to understand the main messages of God to His people. By logical extension, it actually implies that distortions through man’s sinfulness are quite possible (theologically expected) – but that these are by definition distortions of what was otherwise clear, not “responsible interpretations”. Your statement seems to represent that either there is an inherent contradiction in this doctrine and/or this doctrine is false. In light of man’s propensity to distort, your interpreted contradiction (that others profess that scripture is both clear enough and needing the Spirit to reveal) is not a contradiction at all.
Just as with general revelation (cf. Romans 1:20: “clearly seen”), man can clearly see evidence of God in all creation and yet his sin nature distorts this reality. Man’s sin nature actively attacks the perspicuity of scripture, distorting what is clearly seen and requiring the Holy Spirit’s illumination to shed light. God was clear about not eating from the tree, the serpent’s interpretation was clearly a distortion of what was already clear. Perspicuity primarily attends to the believer, not the active unregenerate, although the latter could see clearly if not blinded by sin and a propensity to read his own subjective selfishness into the text. In fact, some (cf. the serpent) use knowledge of the objective reading to help inform how best to re-interpret their unsound reading. Said differently, perspicuity holds that the Bible offers a clear, [relatively] objective reading to those who approach it objectively. (I say relatively, since we all bring some bias.) This is a closely related concept to “infallibility”.
I hope that I have demonstrated that it is not logically necessary that, as you suggested, “If Scripture were really sufficiently perspicuous for the unity of what John referred to below as the “whole catholic Church,” then John wouldn’t have needed to write his recent book, because Christians wouldn’t be divided, at least all Christians who read the Bible.” Christians who read the Bible still bring their sinfulness to the table. MOREOVER, Christians who are not convinced that scripture is the only authority will bring additional teachings that will work against unity. Now, you might want to argue that perspicuity would sufficiently reveal scripture’s own authority but I know from personal experience that student’s of logic could rail against the apparent circular nature of this argument. And, as already shared, many will let their sinfulness block this reality. Much more importantly, let us all acknowledge that THE CLARITY OF SCRIPTURE CAN PERFECTLY REVEAL AUTHORITY AND TRUTH, INCLUDING THE FACT THAT MAN WILL SIN AGAINST THIS AUTHORITY AND CREATE DISUNITY. This is where faith steps in. So, our sin requires that John write his book. Keep on writing! Praise the Lord.
– In the peace of Christ, Duncan
You have made it quite clear that as a convert to Catholicism you have a specific agenda here — namely to show me and other Protestants as those who oppose the tradition and the Fathers. The nature of this assumption can be challenged (seriously) or I would be a Catholic. That was my intent if you read my original words. I am not engaging in a polemical fire-fight and will not. I am not, as you assume above, an anti-Catholic. Scores of Catholic readers of this post know that to be the case so you must be new to reading my work.
As an example, all the quotations you provide do not, in any instance, establish your view of the Magisterium. You believe they do and I do not. Better thinkers than us both have disagreed about this matter.
I will remind you and all other readers that there is no Magisterium in Orthodoxy and they are obviously not Protestants at all!
One of the things I seek to do by such posts is honestly share my own experience of ecumenical conversation. I engage in this with bishops and archbishops of the Roman Catholic Church, as readers again know.
If you want to find a site where apologetics for Catholic or Protestant debate is the intention then this is not the place.
If you want to see how a serious classical Christian of Protestant faith, with a great deal of love and deep respect for Catholic and Orthodox Christians, writes about the Christian life, living faith and biblical/historical theology then this is the place.
I am happy to post your comments, in the spirit of fairness and the whole point of blog comments that make points of disagreement, but you should not expect me to respond in kind; i.e., point for point. I am just not interested. When you suggest anything about my motives or intentions you have failed to respond in a way that will help me as a Christian even if I did agree with your point(s). Why? I am sure of this one thing — Jesus tells us the greatest proof of our faith is not agreement but love.
Since I know Brian I understand what he is referring to in this post. You have answered him in a way that is neither relevant nor helpful to who he is or what he is really saying. Again, you are doing Catholic apologetics. There are many places to engage in such debate that welcome this response. Here we are trying to engage in discussion that allows you to disagree while we also respect and love those we disagree with and have no big agenda to “convert” any Christian from one form of Christian faith to another.
The spirit of post-Vatican II Catholic ecumenism is not reflected in these polemics but in the ongoing dialog that Catholic leaders are having with fellow Christians who are not in the Catholic communion as communicant members. I happen to be engaged in this dialog and continue to listen to my Catholic brothers and sisters with great respect and love longing that we can keep working to find Christ in our midst rather than simply seeking to prove who is wrong in the long debates between us. The reason I wrote this blog was to tell readers of one reason why I have not entered the Catholic Church. Take this at face value since it is the truth.
BTW –Bryan’s question and associated comments seem to beautifully demonstrate the Catholic paradigm expressed when John said: “Over time I believe the Catholic Church developed a two-source view of authority.”
Namely, Bryan asked / said: “Whose interpretation is authoritative? … Is your position that no one’s interpretation is authoritative? … It seems to me that if the idea is that no one’s interpretation is authoritative, then by default one’s own interpretation is the authoritative interpretation [i.e. the Holy Spirit’s] for oneself. … in so many cases they each have incompatible interpretation of Scripture, and this leads to the further fragmentation of Christianity…so this seems to me to be a faulty theological epistemology.”
I read this to mean something like: ‘Darn it, Duncan, if you are saying that scripture is the only authority, then everyone is free to interpret on his own, which leads to discord. My [Catholic] worldview holds the expectation that surely SOMETHING else must be required to govern alongside scripture.”
I am fearful that I might have read too much or too little, but this is what I heard, and this allows me to agree with John’s perception of a two-source view held by many Catholics (and the RCC itself). I respectfully disagree with it, because 1) I hear it from those who profess Christ and 2) I find insufficient evidence in scripture for it.
– In Christ, Duncan
Thanks very much for your reply. You speak about “the visible church,” by which I assume you mean the visible catholic Church [and not merely a particular *local* church]. What are the criteria for being in the “visible catholic Church,” and how do you know those criteria? I ask this because it seems to me that your previous reply depends on there being a visible catholic Church, and I do not believe that there is such a thing [within Protestantism] as the “visible catholic Church,” for the reason I have explained at the link below.
One of the problems with the Protestant notion of the “visible catholic Church” is that there is no way of distinguishing a “branch within” the visible catholic Church, from a “schism from” the visible Catholic Church. And yet the Church Fathers distinguished between heresy and schism, and they condemned “schism from” the Church. St. Cyprian, for example wrote against the Novatian schism from the Church, and St. Optatus and St. Augustine wrote against the Donatist schism from the Church. Why did they [i.e. St. Cyprian, St. Optatus, and St. Augustine] see Novatianism and Donatism as schisms *from* the Church, rather than as mere denominations or ‘branches’ within the Church? Were these saints wrong about this, or, if they were right, why were Novatianism and Donatism schisms *from* the Church while all the various Protestant denominations are not schisms from the Church, but instead are branches within the Church? See my post titled “Branches or Schisms?”
In the peace of Christ,
I have already had hours of debates with Catholics (as well as many more hours of debates with Muslims and atheists and others). It really is fruitless to argue such things from the past. However, as John pointed out, I have found that it is possible to “engage in this dialog without heated rhetorical devices”… I am gaining much respect for those who are able to do this, although I’m not finding many such people in my part of the Body.
Bryan, I read your links posted above. I fear that your logic crumples under the weight of your paradigm. I responded with a comment there. Let me just say here that the very phraseology of your thesis exposes a inherent problem: Of course Protestantism “HAS NO” visible catholic church…because no earthly organization is expected to have (POSSESS) the universal set that is defined by all of those in the universal set. This is analogous to the population of the world (the set of all living things classifiable as humans) is not possesed by any one nation. Your logic, applied in the same manner, proves that my family does not exist — since they are diverse, not “unified”, non-hierarchical, and not able to be defined as the set of parts sharing one type (relation to me). I beg you to reconsider.
Christians huddled in a basement in China praying to Jesus are part of the visible church, even though nobody else sees them — they are visibly apparent to the naked eye as outwardly participating in the Christian religion. They are part of the same visible catholic church that I am. I am united with them in upholding Christ as the Savior. Who knows? I might disagree with a lot of their doctrine and practices and preferences. Still, I pray that I could be united in the exact same way with even more people throughout China and Arab nations and the US and the rest of the world. I pray that the visible catholic church grows. Much more, I pray that the invisible church contains much / most of the visible church.
– In the peace of Christ, our unifier, Duncan
I love these two sentences in particular: “Christians huddled in a basement in China praying to Jesus are part of the visible church, even though nobody else sees them — they are visibly apparent to the naked eye as outwardly participating in the Christian religion. They are part of the same visible catholic church that I am.” AMEN.
In all these threads these two sentences express my view as clearly as anyone has said it. We may disagree, be so very diverse and even entertain ideas that are unsound to faith in some areas but if we are “praying to Jesus” (I know there is more here than these bare words) then we are his and thus in the visible, catholic, one (global), multi-ethnic, church.
I just watched the PBS video on Peter and Paul and was struck again at how hard the early church struggled to grasp Paul’s view of the inclusive church, a church that went beyond the Jerusalem Jesus Community made up of Jews. Paul’s Gentile mission established visible churches across the Roman Empire that had no ecclesiastical connection to one another while they had a deep unity because of Christ. Until we begin with Christ, and confess that he is the Center, then we will fight about the periphery and make all kinds of “tests” for a “true church” that do not exist. Rome’s unity is admirable on one hand but not as real as claimed on another. Consider the diversity of far-left Catholics from those who write comments here. They are “one” in the same visible church but I am considered outside the true church according to Catholic teaching, albeit a “separated” Christian in a church that is, well, who knows what. Odd, I am much closer to these Catholic writers in the truth of Christ than the far-left of their own church but they still have to insist I am not in the true, visible church while the far-left of their church are inside. Again, it is this type of argument that pushes so many of us away from Rome, not toward it.
First off, I apologize for my snappy attitude in my posts. I do not assume nor did I claim you are anti-catholic. I do read you’re other posts and you consistently have presented yourself as an orthodox protestant devoted to the cause of ecumenism. Many of my close protestant friends (who are also not anti-catholic) really love your work.
I can see how you might have received that impression from my reply to Brian but I was actually just using it as an example to demonstrate what I was trying to convey in both my posts. Namely, that if a claim against the Church seems extraordinary and seems to greatly challenge conventional knowledge; it is usually false and can be shown so through homework.
For instance, Jesus having children with Mary Magdaline, the Church operating a supercomputer run by Jesuits for the sake of oppressing protestants, denominationalism as a good thing since it helps bring people into greater truth through trial and error, Saint Francis was actually a supporter of the protestant reformation and even that the Church fathers believed in the sole authority of scripture. I hear these kinds of arguments from anti-catholics, liberal Christians, secularist and even orthodox Christians that are committed to ecumenism like yourself.
So my point to him and to you was, if you hear a strong claim against the Church, please provide a fair response and or perspective from the body of work which you are challenging or making a characterization of (i.e., the church fathers and the Catholic church itself).
In fact, you mentioned in your previous post that none of the quotes I provided were in support of a magistarium. I will avoid challenging this but you must admit that they challenge your particular assumption that these Church Fathers believed in scripture as being the ONLY authority in matters of faith and morals. This is where I take charitable issue with you. Because I think it can be easily shown that the Church fathers did not in fact believe this and so I question the methods by which you arrived at your conclusion.
Please do not misunderstand my intentions, I am not some ex protestant who was burned by his pastor and converted to Catholicism and now wants to stick it to protestants. I am also not some traditionalist Catholic who wants to stir up some trouble for the sake argument or for the sake of casting doubt in protestant’s hearts.
I am just some guy who reads your posts from time to time based on reccomendations from friends and who strongly takes issue with your characterization of the Church fathers based on quotes here and there instead presenting their full view. I am not looking for a debate, I am simply questioning why you choose certain passages that support your assumptions but omitted to present or atleast commenting on the VAST work by these church father that would challenge your view.
I again apologize for my attitude.
Your charitable response is noted and your apology totally accepted. Knowing more about you and why you read my post encourages me a great deal. I thus see your point a lot more clearly. Forgive me for challenging you so personally about what you were up to. Sometimes I get such responses and then I assume more than I should in my response. If a person hangs in and discusses it usually works itself out in a helpful way.
It must be said that this kind of exchange is the reason I like to blog and read comments. It allows us to speak to one another in a way that we can not do in person. What I strive for is charitable dialog and most of the time this is exactly what I read here. I believe the Scriptures are profoundly clear about how we should treat each other thus I do not see the Internet as an excuse for not following the way of caritas. So thanks for bringing your voice to this discussion.
The debate about how to read the Church Fathers is interesting, complex and not one we can solve in these posts unless we took the time to write for hours and even then you and I both would do better by quietly reading and processing a ton of important information on our own. You say that I think my view here can “be easily shown.” I did not say this or assume it at all. The opposite is true for me. I simply do not believe that you can “easily” show your view either. I respect you for believing what you believe but I do not think this difference can be “easily shown” from the Fathers by you or by me. I see complexity where you see Catholic claims proven true. We just honestly disagree.
You should understand that evangelicals like me are seriously teaching patristic studies and that Wheaton College has a Center for the Study of the Early Church. This Center invites Catholic and Orthodox scholars to speak and write alongside the rest of us evangelical Protestants. This would never have happened 10 years ago. It is thus a new day for this entire discussion. Because we who remain Protestant do not read the Fathers in the same way that you do suggests, to me at least, that one of us is wrong or both of us are wrong. If I could be persuaded of your view of Scripture, the Magisterium and the Roman Catholic understanding of Tradition as forming a three-legged stool then I would be likely to convert. The problem, as I said, is simple: I do not see authority in this way at all. I keep an open mind and read the Fathers more than ever. My citing the Orthodox is to show that I am not alone in some of my non-Catholic interpretations and views. We have a three-way disagreement (among the three great traditions) with layers of nuance and continued debate that can help us ALL learn. This is what I am committed to personally.
You also write: “I hear these kinds of arguments from anti-catholics, liberal Christians, secularist and even orthodox Christians that are committed to ecumenism like yourself.” I would accept this if you had not used ended with last two words, “like yourself.” I am fit none of the categories you use: anti-Catholic, liberal, secular and orthodox (at least as you use the term). You make a sweeping claim by linking me in with “these kinds of arguments” that I simple did not write.
What I stated was one of several reasons why I remain unconvinced of Rome’s position on this issue of Scripture and authority. You seem to go on to assume some things about me without seeing that I am not at all like the various apologists on both sides of the modern debates on the Internet and in books written by Catholics and evangelicals. I have, if the truth be known, moved away from that kind of debate and wanted to explain to my numerous Catholic and Protestant friends why I remain a Protestant. I am often asked “why” and this blog was a simple response to a fair question. It is as simple as that. Surely you can disagree with me and respect that I have read and thought about this deeply and simply disagree with you. The reasons you give for a personal decision you made by faith are your own and I am not arguing with you about them. This is what liberty of conscience means to me and is again a distinctly Protestant development in church history. My faith commitment to Jesus is rooted in biblical study, patristic study (which remains subservient to the biblical studies)and personal experience though trusting and loving Jesus. I am not anti-rational nor opposed to logic. I just do not rationally agree that your logic is an impeccable and obvious as you believe.
We both stand or fall to Jesus as our Lord. I am quite sure that he will judge us not on how much we understood about Catholic or Protestant doctrine, or about the church, but on how we trusted him and followed Jesus in humble faith. This is not anti-sacramental either but it is a very different view from your own. This was why I responded so warmly to Duncan’s observation about a tiny visible congregation in China in a house.
Thus, as an active and committed missional-ecumenist I strive to engage and discuss with the whole Christian Church but always with the goal of finding new and better ways toward unity. This is consistent with the desires of all the modern popes since the 1960s and especially since Vatican II. Union is a whole different matter. I do not see (God can do it of course) how we can come into union and I, for one, am not convinced that it is even desirable at this point. What is desirable is “unity in the Spirit in the bonds of peace.” This is my goal and motivates all that I write here. My prayer is for unity for the sake of our one mission of preaching Christ to the whole world! This is what I see in John 17. I call it “relational unity” in my book and believe most exegetes, including most Catholic ones, agree with this reading of Jesus’ prayer.
You will see that I replied in comment #117 of the “Why Protestantism has no visible catholic Church” thread. I explain there why the soundness of my argument is not refuted by your objection. In addition to the “branches within” vs. “schisms from” objection I mentioned above, I also raised there the problem that if there were no visible catholic Church, but only visible Christians, congregations, and denominations, nothing would be any different. And this problem shows, as in the case of the Emperor’s New Clothes, that when Protestants refer to the “visible catholic Church,” they are not referring to any one visible entity. They are only using a singular term to refer to all Christians. And so while their position is semantically different from those Protestants who deny the existence of a “visible catholic Church,” and hold only to an invisible catholic Church, their position is in actuality and substance no different from such Protestants.
In the peace of Christ,
You mentioned, that figuring out how to read the Church Fathers is complex against the backdrop of my claims of how easily it can be shown that they did not believe in the sole authority of scripture. I must admit, I have been often accused of simplifying things. Perhaps I am correctly simplying things by claiming that a statement like “scripture is our authority” and a statement like “tradition of the church is authoritative” can easily be interpreted to suggest that someone believes in both. It is like the classic faith vs. faith + works debate. If you take one passage, it seems like the bible teaches faith alone, take another and it seems like it teaches works alone, but take the bible as a whole and it appears as it teaches faith + works. But ofcourse, the other possibility is that there is a lot of complexity that I am ignoring as you suggest. I am after all new to the Christian Faith and I am not half as education or probably as faithful as you are.
But it seems like there is a third possibility that you may be making things more complicated than they really are as a means of fitting the Church Fathers in the light you would like to fit them in. I guess my question to you is this, how do you understand the mere fact that a Church Father says he believes in A and then he also says B. How do you go from A and B to simply “they believed A”? I would think that you would at least adopt the more nuanced view of what the Church Fathers believe instead of holding on to A (sola scriptura) as it seems you are claiming in this blog. Could you please comment on this?
You also mentioned that there is a three way disagreement between protestants, catholics and the orthodox. But the last time I checked, the orthodox agreed in the infallibility of the bishops in an ecumenical council.
John, I feel I accurately categorized you as an orthodox protestant strongly committed to ecumenism. I did not mean to say that you are as bad as X,Y, and Z group. In terms of Unity, I think it is great to have this goal in mind and attempt to sow some seeds through ecumenical discussion. You said that you see this kind of unity in John 17 when Jesus prayed that they may be one as the Father and I are one. But does the Father and the Son disagree on the authority of scripture vs. authority of scripture, tradition and the magistarium? Does the Father believe in once saved always saved but the Son believe that you can loose your salvation? Most importantly, does the Son claim that the Eucharist is his real body while the Father responds with, “no, no, it is kinda like your body, in a beautiful and symbolic way.” In short, how can we read John 17 in a spiritual unititive sense if we are not even united in matters of the spirit like how are we saved and is Jesus really present in the tabernacle at my parish. I imagine you might respond, “well.. because Protestants and Catholics Love Jesus.” Amen! But just because two brothers Love their Father equally does not mean that they have spiritual unity since they do not agree in matters of the spirit.
Please do not misunderstand me, I do not pose this statements and questions in spite, or to try to start an argument with you or a defense of the Catholic Faith. I am simply posing an honest question against your notion of what Jesus must have meant in John 17.
I use to encounter good Protestants and Catholics who when they thought about our divisions simply sighed and offered up a prayer to Jesus. But now, I am encountering good Protestants and Catholics who almost seem to think disunion is a good thing AND OR consider visible union as only the cherry on top of a spiritual union desert. This is troubling to me.
The citations are provided and it is up to the reader to verify whether or not the quotes in context supports the case being made. And if the case being made is that the early church was governed by the supreme authority of Scripture alone, than the context of those quotes will certainly fall short of supporting the claim.
I was particularly surprised to see a reference from Augustine. Augustine relied on the authority of the church and used Scripture to support those teachings. For example, Augustine argued that infants are born with original sin. His logic was this: since the church baptizes infants for the remission of sin, and infants have no sin of there own, the sin infants possess must therefore be original sin passed down from Adam. From that logical conclusion, Augustine used Scripture to implicitly prove the teaching. If one were to quote something from his works where he points to Scripture to prove his point, one might think he relied on Scripture alone to make his case. That would simply be wrong.
I do not understand why Protestants try to place Sola Scriptura in the early church, and I do not understand why Catholics argue from the same context. Sola Scripture was developed during the time of the so-called Reformation. It was developed in response to Roman Catholic doctrines and practices of that time; it should never be associated with the early church which neither heard of Scripture alone or the many doctrines that developed in the Catholic church over the following fifteen hundred years.
This is a very fair and well-argued criticism of my blog. I assume the writer is Catholic but he does something rather remarkable in making a good point. As I read Brian the first argument he made was that the Fathers did not clearly teach sola Scriptura thus it was not really developed as a dogma until the 16th Century. In so far as this goes I agree. But then the final sentence says there are “many doctrines that developed in the Catholic Church over the following fifteen hundred years” after the earliest Fathers. This, it seems to me, is the REAL problem. Which ones are biblical and which are not? And how do we know? In answer to this the Reformers appealed to Scripture to correct the church. Rome then argued the church interpreted the Scripture and the Magisterium did not need to be reformed by the written Word. This, as much as any theological point, prompted the deep divide.
I would like to think that the same outcome would not happen in the same way today. I would also like to think that if we truly listened to one another we would discover WHY this is so rather than hold to the polemical lines of fire we have established over the course of 500 years now.
So, I believe Scripture judges us and even church councils. Is this sola Scriptura? Yes, if it is understood correctly. But is this precisely taught by all the Fathers? Not clearly I think. But I argued, or tried to argue, that the idea was inferential and the two- or three-source stance of Rome was not clearly taught either. I am persuaded, with Brian, that sola Scriptura is not obvious and thus this is the very reason why I have said that reading the Fathers re: this debate is not simple.
I hope this helps. Once again this kind post shows the value of blog comments that are thoughtful and insightful like Brian’s. When we Protestants and Catholics simply keep talking past each other with our polemical points (the media calls them “talking points” I guess) we can miss the deeper level of conversation to which we can go in real ecumenism, which is still my true goal.
Gerardo, it seems to me that you are still determined to make me say and argue what I am simply not saying and arguing. Your quotes are statements I was well aware of when I wrote my blog. Again, you respond to me as if I am unclear about there even being such statements about tradition in the Fathers. I am not only aware, I am thankful for your sharing these quotes for all readers to see. I just do not believe they clearly prove the three-fold source authority of the Catholic Church that is argued for by the Catholic Church.
The problem thus remains. What are these statements saying and what do they mean? (Leave me out for a moment.) The Orthodox East doesn’t read these quotations the way you do as a Catholic. This should make you pause as a Catholic and at least be less dogmatic about why you are right. How do Catholic readings of the Fathers get the magisterium out of this content and the East does not get it? I hear almost no “popular” Catholic apologists deal with this problem effectively. My point is simple — this is not as easy to prove beyond doubt as you seem to think that it is. It is not a clear black and white Catholic or Protestant debate. Thus I am unpersuaded to convert to the Catholic Church for this and other related reasons.
As a real, practicing and missional ecumenist I am trying to get us (me in particular) to settle down, have an honest conversation about how and why we differ and then take the discussion away from the ordinary attacks that we are all too happy to keep using in this debate. We do have a problem and these types of arguments will not solve them. My original post was about WHY I am not persuaded to become a Catholic even though I have such great respect for the Catholic Church and Catholic Christians. My reading lists for classes include as many Catholic authors as Protestant, to use but one example of how I operate.
Where do I want to go with this? Right toward one another in love. I am asking how can we move forward in mission in spite of this very big difference? For example, what can we do about the sexual brokenness of people as the Christian Church together, not simply as the Catholic Church and as faithful Protestants churches? (Obviously, some Protestant churches are not being faithful on this matter of ethics and basic moral teaching.) In my view we could approach this question so much better together than apart. I also think we would learn and gain a greater audience in the culture if we provided thoughtful responses to our numerous apologetical concerns together, not apart. Consider the way we BOTH value C. S. Lewis, J. R.R. Tolkien and Dorothy Sayers. This is just one example of how our unity could impact our mission in the West. There are dozens I write about in my books and articles. This was why I went to the Vatican to meet with leaders, to meet with Cardinal George, to dialog with professors at the Catholic Seminary in Chicago, etc. My purpose is to find the ways the Spirit can work through all of us as brothers and sisters to extend Christ’s one mission to a broken world that needs to see us living out John 17 not just debating whether or not one view of the text requires complete agreement on this issue that remain a point of disagreement.
My vision is that we can do so much better at being Christ’s one flock in the one kingdom of God by loving, talking and listening better. I fail regularly but I keep trying. I am happy to say many Catholics are with me on this journey. I talk to one or more almost every day. We know we do not agree about the Magisterium and Scripture but we read the Bible together, we pray together and we seek the Spirit together to do Christ’s mission better. This is my passion!
I’ve browsed the comments here (and acknowledge that this discussion is now dead), but I still have a question:
What is it mean for something to be scriptural or supported by scripture. Consider the following arguments:
1. The rosary is scriptural (and thus permitted) because it uses language from scripture and even though scripture doesn’t tell anyone to pray it (scripture never tells us to pray the psalms, but everyone is okay with that).
2. Abortion is not prohibited by scripture, because scripture never addresses it directly.
3. Birth control is prohibited by scripture, because scripture does address it directly (see Gen. 38)
4. Sola scripture is not scriptural because scripture doesn’t mention it (heck, scripture doesn’t tell us what “scripture” is at all!); scripture explicitly says there is more than is written in scripture (John 21:25)
5. Mary’s intercession is scriptural because it happens in scripture (Feast at Cana)
6. We are saved by our good works, because scripture says so (see, e.g., Luke 18:18-23; Matt. 25:31-46)
How does one even begin to evaluate them under your view of the bible?
You make points for sure but they are all rooted, as you must know, in factual errors and misinterpretations of almost every Christian tradition, especially my own view of the church and the Fathers. Are you trying to actually “proof text” a point here or is this meant to be some type of humorous attempt to point out what you disagree with? If you are Catholic then you can do much, much better at making these Catholic points than by proof-texting them in the way a fundamentalist evangelical would make some of their point(s). I wonder if you actually understand what I wrote about Scripture and how it is authority in the church. Your reply strikes at a whole list of what I see as “straw men.”
The question was about process, not what you or anyone else thinks about these actual arguments (each of which I’ve heard offered seriously in some context or another – and not just by fundamentalists). The point being: if we are to say that Scripture is the sole authority, we ought to be able to show that it is authoritative, i.e., that it actually can solve on its own the problems that Christian people face.
That you dismiss all the sample arguments I offered as being silly isn’t important; how you dismiss them is what matters (again, I’m interested in the process): the sample points “are all rooted . . . in factual errors and misinterpretations of almost every Christian tradition.” Forgive my simple-mindedness here, but it seems like, when actual disputes come up, the appeal – the solution – comes from tradition. E.g., Tradition tells us that Jesus wasn’t making a normative statement about salvation when he told that Rich Young Ruler that keeping the commandments was the path to salvation (though, left to my own devices, I personally would read the text that way); tradition tells us that the penumbras and emanations we find in Scripture against abortion amount to decisive prohibitions on the practice (though, left to my own devices, I personally would say the Holy Word leaves the matter open to reasonable disagreement). Tradition is the authority (when it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck).
I apologize if this point is beneath you; I totally understand that you have a nuanced view of things and that you have a general appreciation of tradition, that you’re very well-versed in all this, etc. But for people like me, who spend most of their time on other things (in my case, interpreting other authoritative documents like the tax code, EPA regs, and FAR – all of which I think are easier to interpet than the Bible), I think the Catholic Church has done a great service in being honest and straightford: tradition and scripture are equal. Next time someone comes to me with “homosexuality this” or “this word in the Greek that” – which happens all the time – I don’t have to rethink my life. The response is simple: stare decisis – the Pope says no, game over. Before anyone would try to “empower” me to disagree with, say, Pope Paul VI on such important issues by letting me wheel and deel with my view of the Sacred Scriptures, I would encourage him to carefully consider Luke 17:2.
Again, I apologize if this reflects a poor understanding of your theology or shows disrespect to someone who clearly knows more bible and theology than I do. Just understand, that when you’re me – every scholar is smarter and more well-read, and they all try to get me to think crazy things. Why not just trust the Pope?
I apologize for not understanding your point as clearly as I should have. You’ve now made it clear to me. In my haste I ran by your words without grasping your good point.
Having said this your final sentence is really THE question for me. In the light of many interpretations and much confusion, which I agree is the case, “Why not just trust the Pope?” While this may appear more logical to you and other sincere Catholics I do not believe that it is a good place to go for final authority. Why? Popes have not only been wrong but very sometimes wrong. If we are talking about John XXIII, John Paul II and Benedict XVI I believe we are talking about Popes who have increasingly moved toward Scripture and holy tradition in some rather wonderful ways. But Popes, in my understanding, are all fallible interpreters, albeit often very wise and respected ones. But the Pope does not speak “ex cathedra” on every occasion, as you well know. The real problem for me is things like the “extra” teachings the Roman Catholic Church developed in the 19th and 20th century, such as the Marian dogmas to state but two.
I see the Pope, generally speaking, as one among many great teachers of the classical Christian faith. I read his writing and thinking with love and joy. But he is not superior by virtue of his office but rather as a great leader of the church and thus to be respected as such. Councils, like Vatican II, are also important to the ongoing process of theological renewal and church development but not infallible. They also require interpretation. Catholics, including priests and bishops, disagree about how to understand the teaching of Vatican II. This interpretative process is still going forward today as Popes and Bishops clarify and teach the meaning of the Council, which is much debated down to the present.
Finally, I do not interpret Scripture without tradition. I think I made that clear. I believe the error of fundamentalists is precisely what you say, using the Bible as if no one every understood the texts the way they use (abuse) them. A text here and text there with no regard for tradition, creeds or the church makes a mess. I reject such an approach and sometimes feel conservative Catholics do not understand my view here. I am not a fundamentalist or a proof-texting Protestant. I honor Christian tradition very highly and would not think of running off with a text in my head as the proof that I alone got something right. I “listen” to the church, to tradition, to the creeds, etc. In fact, I listen very carefully and teach others to do the same. But in our listening to all the tradition we must come back to Scripture which still judges them all in the end.
It is much like reading a decision made by the Supreme Court. It is final on the case that was before it but then that case will be interpreted and applied within legal tradition to other cases that have similar, but not exact, issues within them. We appeal to case law (e.g. earlier readings and councils) and the Supreme Court (e.g. Scripture in the Christian instance) and the higher weight is placed on the Scripture, or on the Supreme Court reading of the matter. The Pope can help us, as a faithful servant of Christ and Scripture, but his authority is never “equal” to Scripture in my thinking. Some Popes really messed things up while others have helped the church grasp the truth in many wonderful ways, again like the modern Popes I’ve cited above. The present Pope is unusually able to help because he has such a deep grasp of Scripture and theology both. He is by far the most biblical and theologically gifted of any Pope in our lifetime as evidenced by his rather amazing two books on Jesus of Nazareth, books I urge everyone to read if you question my praise of him.
I hope this helps to clarify things on my side. We are likely closer than you may think, at least in much of how we read the text and practice our faith, but in the end while I hold to tradition, councils, creeds (and thus several ways in which authority works in practice) I believe the Bible has the highest authority. What this means is that reformation can take place at any point in time by the continual study of the inspired Word of God. For Protestants this means things can change more quickly, for Catholics more slowly. That could lead to another blog about why each has a strength and each a weakness.
Hi John, Richard, and all,
I find this discussion interesting as I have been reading Christian Smith’s engaging work, “The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism is not truly an Evangelical reading of Scripture.” Smith is another Evangelical that has recently converted to he Roman Catholic Church.
Smith never says it in his book but people are looking for authority so why not the Magisterium? By the way folks, it’s not the authority of the Pope period but the authority of the Pope with the consensus of the other Bishops and leaders of the RC church.
Like John, I do not feel compelled at the moment to convert to the RC church but I am not against the idea either. I think there needs to be some more real and substantive reforms in practice to happen before more of us Protestants jump the Tibor.
But I will say that Smith shows the shallowness and problems of why biblicism leads to interpretive pluralism. From his perspective, Biblicism is simply impossible to deal with the problem of interpretive pluralsm and actually creates an environmnet for it to thrive in.
Although I for one don’t really disagree with Smith’s thesis (and I am sure many others on this list probably would disagree with him), that doesn’t change the fact that Protestant and Evangelical Christianity have not really handled the issues of biblical authority, church, and tradition very well. We have not really come up with something more authoratative than the Magisterium to produce both discipleship and catholicity for the church today.
Catholics can smile an say, “See, you younger Protestant brothers are wrong then!” But if our older brothers are not careful, they might find out that like the younger brother in the Prodigal son story, we may discover some things late but be at home with the Father more than some people who are already there but who are really not at home with the Father.
Some musings for the day . . .