I. Into the Labyrinth
For many observers, both inside and outside the church, Christendom presents a bewildering array of squabbling schools and sects. Not only is Christendom divided into many denominations, but the denominations are further subdivided in a wide variety of spin-offs. Consider the number of Baptist, Methodist and Presbyterian denominations? And that is not counting all the cults. How is the average man supposed to thread his way through this vast labyrinth?
II. One Room, Four Doors
I would submit that almost all of the vast variety within Christendom can be reduced to how you answer four basic questions. It is like a room with four doors. Each door represents a question with a yes or no answer. When you go through one of the four doors, it leads into a hallway with other doors on either side. For if you answer "yes," that opens other doors, and if you answer "no," that opens other doors. And those doors lead into other rooms with backdoors and side-doors.
On the face of it, this seems to veer off into a never-ending maze of doors and corridors. But that depends on which door you open. And even if you become lost in the maze, you can always retrace your steps to the central room, for all passageways thread back through one of the four doors. However much they may diverge after exiting the central room, they all converge at that common point of origin.
So what are the four questions? (1) Is sola Scriptura the only rule of faith? (2) Does man have freewill? (3) Is the New Covenant continuous with the Old? (4) Are the sacraments a means of grace?
Each door represents one of these four questions. And when you open each door, a leads you into a hallway, with a row of "yes" answers on one side and "no" answers on the other.
III. Door 1
Is sola Scriptura the only rule of faith?
I. Yes! Protestantism.
II. No! Catholicism, Anglo-Catholicism, Orthodoxy, rationalism, Mormonism, Pentecostalism, &c.
A. Open Systems of Revelation
Some schools of thought would deny that their position amounts to new or continuous revelation. But whatever the foreign currency or exchange rate, their position has the same cash value.
For many people, sola Scriptura is not the solution, but the problem. Because Scripture is not self-organizing or self-interpreting, sola Scriptura generates chaos. That is why, so the argument goes, it is necessary to have a Church that can speak with one authoritative voice.
This is the classic Catholic objection to the Protestant rule of faith. And many people find the objection quite compelling. For the sake of argument, suppose that we agree with this objection. Does that simply the choice?
Often, critics of a given view assume that rebutting the opposing position automatically validates their own. But that doesn’t always follow. For example, the Roman Church did not have an official canon for over 1500 years. And it was only under the pressure of the Protestant Reformation that it finally decreed a canon of its own.
As at other points, which door you come out of elsewhere has consequences for where you wind up here. If you say "yes" to freewill and sola Scriptura alike, then sola Scriptura is more vulnerable to the Catholic objection inasmuch as freewill is an inherently unstable and destabilizing dynamic, and when you plug it into sola Scriptura, chaos may well ensue. If, on the other hand, you say "yes" to sola Scriptura, but "no" to freewill, then sola Scriptura is not just another free radical, but functions within the providence of God.
It may be said that even if you take the canon for granted, it fails to alleviate the irony of those who come to the same Bible, but go away with opposing views. The same people who insist on sola Scriptura are the very ones who cannot agree on what it means. So sola Scriptura is obviously an impractical rule of faith. It leads into a trackless maze.
For many, this is a persuasive charge. Is there an answer? There are several. But let us begin with just one. The unspoken assumption is that some other rule of faith is available which will save us from these dire consequences. But that is illusory, for every rule of faith assumes the right of private judgment. Consider the Catholic alternative. The Catholic must exercise his private judgment in deeming the Roman Church to be the one true church and heir to the promises of Christ and his Apostles. He must exercise his private judgment in deeming that the promise of Mt 16:16-18 was official rather than personal, that Peter ordained a seamless line of successors, and so on. He must exercise his private judgment in winnowing the ordinary from the extraordinary Magisterium. Now, these involve him in a host of intricate exegetical and historical judgments.
Consider some exegetical questions. Does the promise of Christ (Mt 16:16-18) refer to Peter? A fair case can be made out for this identification. Yet the parallel with Mt 7:24 invites a Christological referent. And if 16:18 is equating the papacy with the Vicar of Christ, does v23 equate the papacy with the Antichrist? Does the promise refer to Peter alone? No. The promise was extended to the Apostolate in general (18:17-18; Jn 20:23). Does the promise have reference to a Petrine office? No. Indeed, the argument for Petrine primacy is in tension with the argument for apostolic succession. How can Peter’s authority be intransmissible in relation to the Apostolate, but transmissible in relation to the episcopate? Was Peter the first bishop of Rome? No, because such a question confounds the Apostolate with the episcopate. Moreover, it is anachronistic to read the monarchal episcopate back into the 1C Church of Rome— A point conceded in contemporary Catholic scholarship. Cf. R. Brown, Priest and Bishop (Paulist Press, 1970).
Furthermore, the Church of Rome wasn’t founded by Peter. It was most likely an extension of Messianic synagogues (cf. Acts 18:2; Rom 16:3). For that matter, the Diocese of Pontus-Bithynia has a weightier claim to be a Petrine See than the Roman See (1 Pet 1:1).
Consider some historical questions. Can we document an unbroken apostolic succession? What about the Great Schism? "For nearly half a century the Church was split into two or three obediences that excommunicated one another, so that every Catholic lived under excommunication by one pope or another, and, in the last analysis, no one could say with certainty which of the contenders had right on his side," J. Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology (Ignatius, 1987), 196. "It must be frankly admitted that bias or deficiencies in the sources makes it impossible to determine in certain cases whether the claimants were popes or anti-popes," New Catholic Encyclopedia (CUA, 1967) 1:632.
What about rigged elections? (Cf. NCE 11:572b.) What about nullified elections? In "his constitution 'De fratrum nostrorum' (1503)," Julius II "declared null and void every pontifical election brought about by simony," Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford, 1977), 768a.
What about the various impediments to valid ordination, such as the absence of "perfect chastity"? "The lawful reception of Orders demands outstanding and habitual goodness of life, especially perfect chastity," NCE 7:89a. "Mere conscious rejection or unconscious repression of sexuality is not chastity," NCE 3:516. One wonders in passing how representatives of the Renaissance papacy measured up to these saintly conditions!
How do we sift the extraordinary from the ordinary Magisterium? Isn’t this a fallible and retrospective judgment? In "Unum Sanctam," Boniface VIII denied that salvation was obtainable outside the Roman Church. His position was codified by the councils of Florence and Lateran IV. But Rahner (in is famous or infamous category of "anonymous Christians"), Ratzinger, Urs von Balthasar (Dare We Hope? [Ignatius, 1988].) and John-Paul II (Cf. Crossing the Threshold of Hope [Knopf, 1994]; G. Warner, "Is the Pope Catholic," The Spectator .) offer up salvation on far more favorable terms.
Trent repeatedly anathematizes Protestant believers, but Vatican II kindly dubs them the "separated brethren," and even spares some generous words for the followers of Muhammad.
Pius IX roundly condemned higher criticism, but Vatican II lifted the ban. Cf. H. Vorgrimler, ed., Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II (Herder & Herder, 1969), 3:205-06. And it is freely received by the likes of Rahner (E.g., Inspiration in the Bible [Herder & Herder, 1961].), Ratzinger (E.g., In the Beginning: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall [Eerdmans, 1995]. where he adopts the Documentary Hypothesis and demotes Gen 1 to the level of an expurgated version of a heathen creation myth [10-13].), Fitzmyer (E.g., A Christological Catechism: New Testament Answers [Paulist, 1991]. To take just one example, notice how Fitzmyer accuses our Lord of "protological thinking…being a child of his time," ), and John-Paul II (Cf. K. Rahner, I Remember [Crossroad, 1985], 95.) It seems as though the dividing line between the ordinary and extraordinary Magisterium can only be drawn with the benefit of postmortem hindsight. Poor Galileo!
Catholicism can always salvage the infallible reputation of the Magisterium by declaring after the fact that embarrassing positions reflect the ordinary Magisterium. But there is a toll for crossing this bridge. You make magisterial teaching unfalsifiable by rendering it unverifiable.
So, to say nothing more, this means that every Roman Catholic must begin life as a de facto Protestant, must begin where every Protestant must begin. But if you must lay your foundation on Protestant ground, then sola Scriptura should quarry every brick of the rising edifice.
Then there are many in agreement with the Catholic objection, but in disagreement with the Catholic answer. Take the Orthodox alternative, which canonizes conciliar tradition. But the problem with this alternative is that every belief has a toehold in tradition, for tradition is just another name for the history of belief. Heresy has a past. Heresy is just as old as orthodoxy.
Orthodoxy codifies a sliver of tradition —the tradition canonized in ecumenical councils is the norm. Ah, but who decides when a council local or ecumenical? Heretical or orthodox? The Greek Orthodox Church has never had a really official canon of Scripture inasmuch as none of the councils it deems to be ecumenical decreed a canon.
Setting tradition in opposition to private judgment commits a regressive fallacy, for tradition has to start somewhere, and where it begins is with the work of pioneering individuals. Today's tradition was yesterday's innovation. All that Orthodoxy does is to codify the private judgment of trendsetters like Basil and Athanasius. If the right of private judgment were all that problematic, then resorting to tradition would only push the problem back a step. The right of private judgment has been camouflaged, but not uprooted.
How you come down on sola Scriptura affects your polity and ecclesiology. For if you believe that the alternative to sola Scriptura is some form of sacred tradition, then that generally commits you to a high ecclesiology, with a firm lay/clerical division and authoritarian teaching office. But if, on the other hand, you subscribe to sola Scriptura, then you can afford a more pragmatic policy on church government.
Like Catholicism, Orthodoxy hitches its star to apostolic and sacramental succession. (Cf. G. Florovsy, Bible, Church, Tradition [Norland, 1972], 17-18; J. Meyendorff, Living Tradition [St. Vladimir's Press, 1978], 50-51.) But trying to establish a historical case for apostolic and sacramental succession would appear to be even more vexed for Orthodoxy than Romanism inasmuch as the Orthodox church is much more decentralized than the Roman See, consisting of numerous national bodies (e.g., Greek, Russian, Romanian, Serbian, Albanian, Bulgarian, Georgian), each with its own checkered history of internal intrigue and backstabbing.
In the nature of the case, divine revelation presumes that God is an object of knowledge. So sola Scriptura, if true, would undercut the apophatic tradition in Byzantine theology.
Unlike the conflict with Rome, which has generated a huge polemical legacy, Mormonism is a rapidly growing and relative newcomer to the theological scene, and for that reason, has not received the critical attention it deserves. It should be said at the outset that even if the Mormon apologist could establish an open canon, that would not move an inch towards establishing the prophetic pretensions of Joseph Smith or other Mormon sages.
Hugh Nibley, that most versatile of Mormon scholars, has made a detailed case for an open canon. Cf. Since Cumorah (Deseret Book Company, 1988).
Let’s outline his argument:
i) Initial opposition to the claims of Joseph Smith was prized on the assumption of a closed canon and plenary verbal inspiration.
ii) Textual criticism has overthrown the traditional theory of plenary verbal inspiration.
iii) Source criticism and form criticism have demonstrated that the Gospels are secondary rather than primary sources of the Christian kergyma. Moreover, they suppress the original message.
iv) The very existence of the Synoptics represents a tampered version of the original text.
v) The coexistence of the Apocrypha, Agrapha and Pseudepigrapha with the NT documents goes to show that the NT canon does not enjoy a privileged standing.
vi) Alongside the NT there existed an esoteric tradition.
vii) The NT only bears witness to the pre-Easter teaching of Christ.
What are we to make of these charges?
i) Nibley consistently confounds higher and lower criticism. It is a non-sequitur to infer the errancy of the autographa from textual variants.
ii) Nibley exploits the concessions of liberal Catholic and Protestant Bible scholarship as a launching pad. Of course, conservative Christians would reject the operating assumption. Hence, Nibley’s whole chain-of-reasoning is hung on thin air.
iii) Orality and literality coexisted in NT times. For example, the NT preserves the letters of Paul (Romans—Philemon) as well as the speeches of Paul (in Acts). Hence, there is no reason to insist on a primary and preliminary oral stage as over against a secondary literary stage, or assign these to different hands.
iv) The Synoptics vary according to the target-audience. Matthew adds some background details for his Jewish audience, and Luke for his Gentile audience, but there is nothing nefarious about audience-adaptation. Moreover, both Matthew and Luke are extremely conservative in their editing of Marcan materials.
v) Controversies over the extent of the canon prove that the ancient Church did not operate with an open canon.
vi) The fabrication of rival literature takes the preexisting canon as the frame of reference.
vii) It is not the Church that was guilty of suppressing evidence. Rather, it is well known that Marcion was the one who produced an expurgated version of the canon
viii) Mormonism has to resort to a conspiracy theory to justify the canonicity of its own literacy. But this poses a familiar dilemma. How do you document a conspiracy? If it’s a conspiracy, there shouldn’t be a public record, right? The very fact that Nibley turns to the publications of the Church Fathers undermines his central thesis. This isn’t classified, top-secret material. Long before Nag Hammadi we knew what we knew about Marcion and the Gnostics because the Church Fathers published point-by-point expositions and refutations of the opposing position. So this is completely above-board.
ix) Nibley is deceptive about relative chronology and literary dependence. None of his counterexamples coincide with the date of the NT. He builds his case on such miscellaneous and late-dated source material as the Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas (3C), the Gospel of Thomas (4-5C)—ragments of the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas can be traced back to the 2C via the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, but even these fragments are derivative of the canonical Gospels—the Clementine Recognitions (3-4C), The Pistis Sophia (4C), 2 Enoch (Nibley assigns this a pre-70 AD date. Yet some scholars have dated it no earlier than the 7C and as late as the 15C!), and even Innocent the III (12-13C)!
x) Examples like the so-called "Messianic Secret" do not afford evidence of a disciplina arcana. Indeed, Nibley’s examples are taken from the publicized teaching of Christ in the Gospels. And Nibley’s major source of a disciplina arcana comes from Basil (4C)—which is a very selective use of late evidence.
xi) Even if the Gospels were limited to the pre-Easter teaching of Christ—which represents a serious overstatement—the NT is not limited to the Gospels. The NT covers the work of Christ from the Incarnation to the Ascension and Session— with a preview of the Parousia. So it is not as if there were a great gap in the record. Nibley is piggybacking on the Gnostic and Catholic appeal to Acts 1:2-3 to smuggle in Mormon esoterica. But in terms of their function in the narrative strategy of Acts, vv2-3 do not issue an invitation to interpolate oral tradition. Rather, vv2-3 serve as a set-up for the apostolic kergyma. The preaching and prooftexting in Acts take their cue from dominical techniques (cf. Lk 24:25-27,45-48). The "kingdom of God" (1:3) has come in the coming of Christ (Lk 11:20; Acts 8:12; 19:8; 20:25; 28:23,31).
From a later generation of scholarship, Stephen Robinson has argued that the exclusion of other inspired writings from the canon (cf. Lk 1:1; 2 Cor 5:9; Col 4:16; Jude 14-15) opens the door to a reintroduction of revelation. Cf. How Wide the Divide, C. Blomberg & S. Robinson (IVP, 1997), 63,206-7 (nn.20-22).
But there are a number of weaknesses with this argument:
a)Why certain letters of Paul, didn’t make it into the canon is highly speculative. To build a positive case on such conjectural grounds is like flying in a vacuum tube.
b) However, the fact that 13 of his letters made it into the canon renders it quite unlikely that his other letters were actively excluded. What would be the motive?
c) The ancient church didn’t have the kind of centralized command-and-control that would even make it possible to not only exclude but eliminate all trace of rival literature. Indeed, the survival of so much of the Agrapha, Apographa and pseudepigrapha bears witness to that fact. The fact is that although the ancient church arrived at an informal consensus on the canon, there was no official canon until the Reformation forced the issue (E.g. WCF 1:2-3; Trent ("Decree on the Canonical Scriptures"). So the popular image of an Index Liborum Prohibitorum in the ancient church is a blatant anachronism.
d) Again, the ancient church didn’t have a publishing house. So it seems likely that these other letters didn’t survive, not because their was an organized effort to suppress them, but because there were not enough copies in circulation to be recopied and escape the ravages of time.
e) From a Reformed standpoint, we must add that the "loss" of an inspired writing is not a historical accident, but due to God’s providential design.
f) There is no evidence that the pre-Marcan gospels were inspired.
g) Even Robinson admits that we cannot confidently identify Jude 14-15 with the extant Enochian literature (Ibid., 206 [n.20].). So we cannot appeal to the Enochian Pseudepigrapha as inspired literature that was excluded from the canon, for Jude’s allusion may not have reference to any of this material—which is, in any case, a revamping of earlier source material.
h) There is also a difference between quoting a narrative work as prophetic and quoting a prophetic character within the narrative. The inspired status of the speaker is not interchangeable with the inspired status of the narrative in general, or vice versa. This commits a level-confusion.
i) Since the Mormon "scriptures" don’t resemble the Pauline letters or Enochian literature or Ur-Markus, Robinson’s counterexamples are subversive to his thesis. If this supplies the standard of comparison, then the Mormon "scriptures" are bogus, for they didn’t restore Paul’s "lost" letter to the Laodiceans and the like.
j) Since the Mormon "scriptures" contradict the canon of Scripture, and in fact present a completely different and divergent belief-system (on God, man, sin, salvation, christology, eschatology, creation, predestination, providence, the church, &c.), they can hardly represent a complement to the canon.
However, Robinson combines this with the old assertion of textual tampering—dating "whatever changes were made in the present text to between AD 55 and 200" [Ibid., 206 (n.1].) He also chides Blomberg for insisting that there is no textual evidence of deletion as question-begging because "it is the LDS contention that the evidence was deleted" (Ibid, 206 [n17].) But this position is faulty on several grounds:
i) The burden of proof is on the Mormon to document textual tampering. In the absence of any evidence to the contrary, the presumption is quite properly in favor of the textual integrity of the NT.
ii) Patristic and MS authorities not only attest the state of the NT text at the time of the Church Father or MS, but also attest a tradition of transmission. As such, the presumption of textual integrity and continuity extends well below the cut-off date of the earliest extant witness.
iii) Any effort to systematically tamper with the NT text would have ignited a firestorm of controversy, resulting in schism and generating a sizable polemical literature. This could not be covered up.
Incidentally, the same expedient figures in Muslim apologetics. Because Muhammad set up the Bible as the standard of comparison (e.g., 5:46-47; 10:94), any discrepancy between his message and Scripture falsifies his prophetic pretensions. Muslims can only evade this by claiming that the text of Scripture was tampered with. But even if the Church were willing and able to pull of this silent revolution, the most ancient versional and MS evidence extant still antedates Muhammad by centuries. So the charge falls of its own dead weight.
As a more general issue, the category of the divine in Mormon theology is inadequate to support a doctrine of inspiration and revelation. Mormonism subscribes to finite theism. The gods of Mormon theology are scaled up versions of men (Cf. D&C 130:22; Moses 6:9). As such, they would be subject to the same limitations of any other spatiotemporal being.
Incidentally, this is also a crippling impediment to the inspired status of Hindu and Buddhist "scriptures." A doctrine of divine revelation is only as good as a doctrine of the divine nature. And that is to say nothing of the further fact that the Vedic sages were acidheads.