The Supreme Authority of Scripture and Interpretation

John ArmstrongBiblical Theology, Church Tradition, Hermeneutics, Patristics, Personal, Reformed Christianity, Roman Catholicism

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.

st-peters-basilica-vatican-city-i749 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!)

ChurchFathers 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)

Jerome 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.

Scroll 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.

Text of Romans 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!