Saturday, August 06, 2005

Is sola scriptura for hypocrites?

Over on the Crowhill discussion, board, Jonathan Prejean is charging that sola scriptura, or the argument for sola scriptura--I'm not exactly sure which-- amounts to a hypocritical double-standard:


You are essentially arguing that if a doctrine claims a historical event (like the Assumption or the Immaculate Conception), it must pass a historical test. The problem is that you've left yourself your own loophole; you believe things in Scripture whether or not you can verify them. Well, why's that? Because you assume sola scriptura, which does not change the fact that Scripture breaks your own criteria for verifiability.

I, on the other hand, have to be consistent about the standards by which I accept divine testimony without proof, and therefore, if I believe Scripture without historical testimony, then I must believe anything else that consistency would demand me to accept. The reasons that I accept the authority of Scripture are the same reasons that I accept the testimony of Tradition on a particular subject.

The point is that Catholics do not consider the evidential argument that Protestants give for the infallibility of Scripture sufficient to warrant belief in Christianity. From our perspective, you have presented an evidentially "unverifiable" argument for sola scriptura (because the facts of apostolic authorship, textual accuracy, etc., etc., aren't logically sufficient to justify sola scriptura on an evidential basis), so every argument you make based on sola scriptura is a fortiori unwarranted. And since you have to accept the uncorroborated testimony of Scripture for some historical events without sufficient basis, you are defeated by your own critique.

Not the point. Your opinion that these things are "ahistorical accretions" that make Catholicism a "legalistic, ritualistic mish-mosh" has nothing logical to do with the reasons that you provided. If you really believed the logical reasons you provided for "not Catholic," then you would subject your Protestantism to the sam standards of historical verifiability, and you would also be "not Protestant." The real reason that you make the choice is your feelings, your opinions, your intuition, which you are trying to rationalize by these "logical" criteria. The point is that there is no reason for your conversion in the logical sense, any more than there is a reason for one preferring chocolate to vanilla.

But you've just invalidated every argument from any uncorroborated account of Scripture. As I suggested to the Pedantic Protestant, apostolic authorship and textual accuracy are not in and of themselves logically sufficient to support the inerrancy of Scripture. You have to also add a series of philosophical assumptions about God, how He reveals Himself, and what the purpose of Scripture is to reach inerrancy. So while you say you are adhering to this standard, you actually violate it in practice.

But if you limited yourself strictly to the historical method, you've have to invalidate your own position as well. The historical method, strictly speaking, is insufficient to establish the inerrancy of Scripture. You have to have a philosophy of revelation, and this is where I think the Catholic argument frankly kills you based on probability from the historical evidence. Every time you plead "well, people can have different opinions," it erodes the believability of your theory of revelation, so when it comes down to the historical situation of literally no person involved in the transmission of revelation ever believing matters that you consider essential for faith, the notion becomes ridiculous.

As I said, you make non-historical arguments for the inerrancy of Scripture. Do you think you can make your case for Evangelicalism without ever appealing to Scripture except as an ordinary historical document? I don't.

The appeal to doctrinal development is no less "unverifiable" that the appeal to the "inerrancy" of Scripture. However, the former is actually consistent with the historical evidence, while the latter is far less plausible.


I’ve strung together a number of excerpts to give you a feel for the gist of the argument. Since I’m one of those who just so happens to believe in sola scripture, how should I respond?

Before we can answer, or perhaps as part of the answer, it’s necessary to untie a number of knots, for several distinct issues have gotten all tangled up as though they were interchangeable with one another. For example, the doctrine of sola Scriptura is equated with the verification of sola Scriptura, which is equated with the verification of Scripture per se, which is equated with the verification of Biblical inerrancy. But these are all distinct propositions, and the evidence for one is not necessarily the same as the evidence for another.

1.The doctrine of sola Scriptura is a question of internal evidence, of the self-witness of Scripture and the identity of the Christian faith as a revealed religion.

At this juncture, the question is simply one of what the Bible teaches about itself, and not a question of whether what it teaches is true. There is no place for corroborative evidence at this stage of the process.

So the question is an essentially exegetical question. Does the Bible teach sola Scriptura? Does this reflect the actual practice of Christ, the Apostles, and the prophets? Is sola Scriptura a necessary presupposition of Scripture?

And if the question is essentially exegetical, then the relevant evidence is essentially exegetical. Here, I’d say, we apply the grammatico-historical method. That’s how we verify or falsify the doctrine of sola Scriptura.

2.Prejean also conflates the verification of Scripture per se with the verification of sola Scriptura. But, in principle, the verification of Scripture per se doesn’t commit you to sola Scriptura. That would confuse #2 with #1.

Taken by itself, the verification of Scripture doesn’t implicate any particular position on the relation between Scripture and a competing or complementary source of dogma.

There’s a basic difference between the question: “What do I believe that Scripture teaches about itself?” and “Do I believe what Scripture teachers about itself?”

3.Likewise, sola Scriptura and the inerrancy of Scripture are distinct propositions. You have liberal Protestants who subscribe to limited inerrancy. I don’t agree with them. But these propositions are logically distinct.

4.Is the historical method sufficient to verify the Bible? That depends on how you define the historical method.

If you operate with a positivistic paradigm of historical evidence, then that, by definition, rules out the supernatural. But, of course, that fact/value hiatus is, itself, a value-laden assumption.

How we define the historical method is inseparable from our historiography or philosophy of history.

5.Here we’re brushing up against intramural debates within evangelicalism over evidential, presuppositionalism, and natural theology.

Yet you have parallel debates within Catholicism. Remember the battle royal between Gilson and Bréhier over the question of whether “Christian philosophy” was an oxymoron?

And that, in turn, goes back to older debates. The Augustinian tradition, with its doctrine of divine illumination, has a more distinctively religious epistemology than the Thomistic model of faith and reason.

6.Yes, there are, indeed, philosophical issues in play. But these are not anterior to the historical method. Rather, because there is no value-free historical method, there is no one historical method--for the definition of historical evidence is not, itself, a historical question, but a historiographical question. Our historical methodology is adapted to our belief about what is historically possible and a possible object of historical knowledge. The historical method of Augustine or Bonaventura is quite different from the historical method of Troeltsch.

At the same time, we can also argue over which version is better. We are not at an intellectual stalemate. For one version of the historical method may have more explanatory power than another.

7.It is also quite confused or confusing of Prejean to contend that an Evangelical is guilty of hypocrisy if he operates with a double standard. It all depends.

It’s an accepted principle of logic in ad hominem and ad absurdum argumentation that you can argue down your opponent on his own grounds without you yourself sharing his stated standards and assumptions.

I happen to think it’s pretty irrelevant what George Bush or John Kerry did during the Viet Nam War. But once Kerry chooses to make his military service a qualification for higher office, then his war record becomes fair game. And I’m not operating with a hypocritical double-standard if I don’t apply the same standard to Bush since it isn’t his standard or mine.

Likewise, if Trent and Vatican I both index tradition to the unanimous consent of the Fathers, it’s perfectly fair for an Evangelical apologist to hold the magisterium to its own claims.

Likewise, if Vatican I formalizes the argument from prophecy and miracle (session 3, chapter 3), it is perfectly legit for an Evangelical apologist to hold the magisterium to its own argument.

Likewise, if Ineffabilis Deus and Munificentissimus Deus both support their claims by appeal to Scriptural prooftexts and traditional precedent, an Evangelical apologist is quite entitled to hold the magisterium to its own criteria.

Likewise, if Catholicism invokes apostolic succession to validate its teaching, then that historical chain-of-custody is subject to public inspection, is it not? When an Evangelical apologist points to the Great Schism or the many impediments to valid ordination, he is playing the Romanist game by Romanist rules, not his own.

8.As to our own standards, that is person-variable. Not every Evangelical apologist has the same epistemology.

One thing I will say, however, is that probability is calibrated to certain background conditions. What is probable must at least be possible. What is less probable is judged to be less so in reference to something more probable.

Ultimately, probability cannot bootstrap its own criterion. Without a framework of divine providence, there is no fixed frame of reference to probilify anything.

Hence, providence is a precondition of probability. Hence, when an Evangelical apologist offers a probable argument in defense of Scripture, he is not, in fact, operating outside a Biblical worldview, but within a Biblical worldview.

What is more, so is the unbeliever. For this presupposition is unavoidable to ground probability. See Plantinga’s proper function strategy for a supporting argument.

9.Scripture as a whole never appeals to corroborative evidence. At most, it appeals to corroboration for certain events in particular.

Hence, the absence of systematic corroboration does not falsify the Bible, for that was not a standard which the Bible set for itself in the first place.

When, despite the ravages of time, we do come across corroborative evidence—which is more often than we have any right to expect, given the paucity of the surviving evidence--that’s a bonus point.

10.The question is not whether we have an individual reason for every individual belief we hold, but whether we have a reliable source of information. Do we have a compelling reason for that—for the source of information—and not a separate source of information for every discrete belief.


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  2. Relevant to this discussion are Steve Hays' critique of Philip Blosser's critique of sola scriptura, "By Scripture Alone," and Blosser's rebuttal, "Sola Scriptura revisited: a reply to Steve Hays (in 95 antitheses)."