Perry Robinson has weighed in on sola Scriptura:
“If Scripture is the only infallible rule of faith, who is the judge that is to apply the rule?”
Must there be a uniform answer to that question?
“And what authority does such a judge possess?”
This assumes the “judge” in question must possess some sort of “authority” to apply the rule of faith. Why should we assume that?
“It seems to me that Sola Scriptura includes the thesis of the right of private judgment, namely that every believer can make normatively binding judgments and that only a believer can make judgments that are binding upon his or her conscience.”
i) As a semantic matter, I’ve never cared for the phrase, “the right of private judgment.” However, theology has a standardized terminology, so I usually acquiesce to linguistic conventions. But this is how I myself would formulate the principle:
a) God has the right to govern his church according to his appointed rule of faith (i.e. sola Scriptura).
b) No church officer (or church body) can invoke ecclesiastical authority as a shortcut for responsible exegesis.
“Further, if as Michael writes that advocates of Sola Scriptura hold that there were two sources of authority for the first say 400 years of the church, the one being tradition which was a summary, albeit a fallible one, of what was written by Scripture and accepted by the universal church, where is such a summary to be found? What document is a token of this summary? And what constitutes the ‘universal church?’ Where is there an example of the ‘universal church’ in the first four hundred years?”
That’s not how I’d frame the issue. For one thing, the validity of sola Scriptura doesn’t depend on the universal acceptance of the early church.
It’s either objectively true or false that Scripture alone is the rule of faith which God has imposed on his church. How many early Christians may or may not have seen it that way is irrelevant to where the truth lies.
“If Scripture during this period was in the process of being ‘recognized’ doesn’t this imply that Scripture itself wasn’t part of the faith universally recognized? If so, this would imply that the church for the first four hundred years, not to mention afterwards, didn’t believe in Sola Scriptura.”
i) This way of framing the issue partakes of the same fallacy noted above.
ii) But beyond that, it’s also equivocal. It could either mean:
a) The early church was in process of recognizing sola Scriptura as the rule of faith.
b) The early church was in process of recognizing the various books of the NT canon. Producing a uniform edition. Getting it distributed throughout the empire.
In case of (b), the principle of sola Scriptura was not the object of recognition. Rather, what books constituted sola Scripture was the object of recognition.
“I am not clear why ‘word of mouth’ is reliable in the first hundred years of the church, but not afterwards. Sure verbal communication can be corrupted, but so can texts.”
Yes, texts can be corrupted, but there are various criteria to identify textual corruption. See Tov on the OT and Metzger on the NT. What are Perry’s criteria for the corruption of oral tradition?
“Further, it too often seems to be the case that these models always appeal to some kind of apostasy and yet the church seemed to do an adequate job with issues much more sophisticated as with Christology and the Trinity.”
That’s doesn’t mean the early church did an equally good job on, say, anthropology, hamartiology or soteriology.
“Therefore isn’t this an a forteriori reason for thinking that the church was reliable in ‘word of mouth’ teaching during the same period?”
That assumes the early church did an adequate job on Christology and the Trinity because oral tradition was reliable, and it relied on oral tradition to get the job done. Is that Perry’s contention? If so, where’s the supporting argument?
“And if tradition is becoming obscure in this period, doesn’t this undermine the reliability of Gospel authorship since no Greek manuscript prior to 200 of the Gospels has a traditional designation?”
This is equivocal. It could either mean:
i) There are pre-200 AD MSS of the Gospels without the traditional designations.
ii) There are no pre-200 AD MSS of the Gospels.
Which does Perry mean? Martin Hengel has argued that all our extant Gospel MSS include the traditional designations. So that would be evidence for the originality of the titles.
“And isn’t the question, with what authority did the church “recognize” inspired works?”
Why is this a question of ecclesiastical authority? Doesn’t that beg the question?
“Appealing to ‘recognition’ only moves the question, it doesn’t answer it.”
True. Of course, Perry’s alternative only moves the question, too. Recognition of the canon shifts to recognition of the true church, or recognition of a true ecumenical council.
“And Patton seems to give away the farm when he seemingly admits that the apostolic teaching was passed on both in scripture and via tradition for the first 400 years. If this is so, why jettison what had been apostolically instituted practice and belief? It seems far too convenient.”
This is historically artificial. How does oral tradition actually operate? Are we talking about word-of-mouth for 400 years, where Jesus tells Peter something, who repeats it to Linus, who repeats it to Anacletus, who repeats it to Clement, who repeat it to Evaristus, and so and so forth, like Alex Haley in Roots?
Let’s take a comparison. Why, in the Gospels, do Jewish layman consult the scribes? Because the scribes had direct access to copies of the Bible. They transcribed the Bible. As a result, they memorized a lot of Scripture.
So, if you, as a layman, wanted to know the Mosaic law governing a particular situation, and you didn’t have direct access to a copy of the Pentateuch, you might ask one of the scribes. You would be getting your information by word-of-mouth.
But that doesn’t mean the scribes were getting their own information by word-of-mouth. To the contrary, oral transmission presupposed a written exemplar.
Same thing with the early church. Yes, you have a certain amount of oral transmission, but that’s dependent on written sources. The reason you could have oral transmission in the early church is because some Christians had copies of the Scriptures.
Let’ take another comparison. When Paul was traveling, he didn’t lug around a copy of the OT. That would have been too cumbersome.
Paul had memorized large portions of the OT. So he could quote from memory. This isn’t oral tradition in the sense that Moses said something to Joshua, who said something to Othniel…who said something to Ezra…who said something to Gamaliel, who said something to Paul—as if the OT was handed down by word-of-mouth.
Oral transmission is not a separate chain-of-custody. Rather, it depends on written sources to inform and refresh the memory of the tradent. The tradent is generally transmitting something he read. Something he committed to memory from a written source.
“If the rule of faith was transmitted via tradition, this seems to falsify Sola Scriptura, namely that Scripture is the only infallible rule of faith.”
i) At worst, this would only mean that the early church didn’t follow the proper rule of faith, not that sola Scriptura wasn’t the proper rule of faith.
ii) Perry is also playing a semantic bait-and-switch game. Oral transmission is not the same thing as Holy Tradition. And we don’t ordinarily use the word “tradition” for just any old word-of-mouth communication. A mother tells her daughter that if she sees her brother at school, she should tell him to pick up a gallon of milk on the way home. I suppose we could call that oral tradition if we wanted to, but it trivializes the concept.
iii) Perry also confuses access to Scripture with the primatial authority of Scripture. Suppose I’m shipwrecked on a desert island. My only access to Scripture are the Bible verses I memorized in Sunday School. Does the fact that a castaway lacks direct access to the Bible nullify sola Scriptura? No.
“Of course, Patton will argue that tradition wasn’t infallible but I don’t think this helps. First, if the latter wasn’t infallible, why think that the former is, if infallibility isn’t a necessary condition for reliably transmitting the apostolic teaching? If the rule of faith can be fallible, why think that Scripture must be?”
We don’t believe that Scripture is infallible because of some a priori argument that it must be infallible. It’s a de facto question. The spoken word can also be infallible. The oracles of Isaiah were infallible. That’s not the issue. This is not a question of what’s necessary, but what God has chosen to do or refrain from doing.
“On the other hand, if tradition is unreliable, this undermines the belief that Scripture is infallible since it is by those very means that Scripture was transmitted, identified and the basis upon which textual corrections we made against various heretical readings.”
Evangelicals don’t regard copies of the Bible as infallible.
“Added to this is the fact that various councils claim for themselves divine inspiration.”
That’s a very revealing admission. If Perry thinks that inspiration is a necessary condition for ecumenical councils, then Perry himself regards uninspired oral tradition as unreliable.
“But even if these things can be gotten around, it would still be the case admittedly that the rule of faith for the first four hundred years wasn’t only Scripture and wasn’t only infallible and that would be sufficient to falsify Sola Scriptura.”
That doesn’t follow for the above-stated reasons.
“Citing what this or that Bishop says in Orthodoxy seems to rest on a mistaken idea of authority in the Orthodox tradition. Just because a bishop says something doesn’t by itself settle the matter. There have been infallible laymen in the Orthodox Church as well. Patton seems to foist upon the Orthodox a more Catholic understanding of a magisterium.”
So we’re now on a quest to pin down the locus of Orthodox authority.
“On the former, no tradition, no magisterial body can settle matters with anything more than fallible authority.”
And suppose that’s how God wants it to be?
“Therefore, the judgments reached in this way are provisional and revisable and therefore represent a practical stability, which can always be re-opened. There isn’t any formal theological statement found in any Reformed confession that isn’t itself open to possible revision, and this includes the canon itself.”
That’s the case if that’s how God wants it to be. But is that God’s will for his people?
We can only judge matters of the basis of the best evidence that God has put at our disposal. That’s really out of my hands. But if God’s providence is unreliable, then there’s no more reason to put any stock in Orthodox church history. Perry’s scepticism cuts both ways.
Why not take the position that church history is written by the winners? That Perry’s Orthodox sources are partisan? That the good guys lost because they didn’t have the political connections?
Therefore, judgments reached by ecumenical councils are provisional and revisable. Every dogma can be reexamined.
“At the end of the chain of authority is the individual. No magisterial authority can trump private judgment in a normatively binding way.”
It’s not a question of ecclesiastical authority over against individual authority. It’s a question of where the truth lies, and forming beliefs on the basis of evidence and argument, according to our natural aptitudes and opportunities—which vary from person-to-person and place-to-place. We’re individually responsible to God, but our level of responsibility is person-variable. To whom much is given, much is required.
“If this wasn’t so, then the Reformers would have had no basis on which to judge that the church’s judgment was wrong and non-binding.”
You don’t need authority as long as you’re right.
“Positing Scripture as the ultimate source does nothing to touch this point. And to be clear, I am not arguing that everyone doesn’t judge for himself what he takes to be true. Rather, private judgment is the idea that the supremely normatively binding judgments on the conscience can only come from the individual himself (barring direct divine private revelation).”
Once again, that’s not how I’d formulate the principle. Scripture is the norm. Individual judgment is fallible, and it can also be sinful. (Same thing with collective judgments, e.g. ecumenical councils).
If I’m a married man who has an affair, and my pastor tells me I’m living in sin, he’s right and I’m wrong. In this case, what makes his judgment “normative” or “binding” is that it’s true, and what makes it true is that it’s true the norm of Scripture.
Scripture is binding on the conscience, and a true interpretation (“judgment”) thereof is binding on the conscience.
By the same token, there are cases where the layman is right and the pastor is wrong. A pastor or priest or bishop or council or pope can’t stand on his authority as the trump card.
“This is what it means to say that everyman is their own Pope.Consequently, to argue that I am not infallible either does no work here since to know I do not have to be infallible, but to form judgments which can bind the consciences of others, I would need to be.”
Even if this were the case, church discipline doesn’t depend on that level of certainty.
“Why think that I need to be infallible to understand infallible teaching? I don’t. But I would need to be infallible to judge in a way that was normatively binding on the consciences of other men and that seems fairly easy to establish in terms of what was in the mind of the church at councils.”
This makes two key assumptions—neither of which he defends:
i) The “mind of the church” represents the unit of normative judgment.
ii) Ecumenical councils successfully capture the mind of the church.
Why should we believe either proposition?
“It also seems to me that there are clear examples of doctrines held by Protestants that cannot be justified on the grounds of Sola Scriptura.”
Even if that were the case, it doesn’t invalidate sola Scriptura. If Israel was in breach of covenant, does that mean the Mosaic covenant was not a rule of faith which God imposed on his people?
“Jugulum’s bald claim that God never established an on-going body of judges and authoritative interpreters is not just a bald claim but is arguably false. Certainly in the OT there was such a body, which could only be trumped by a prophet extraordinarily commissioned (directly by God) or ordinarily commissioned, with the attestation of miracles such as the case with Elijah.”
Is Perry alluding to OT judges? But that undercuts his thesis.
i) OT judges had to apply the Mosaic law to various situations. They had the authority to do so. But their judicial rulings were fallible, and, in that respect, “provisional” and “revisable.” In principle, you could “reopen” the case.
ii) And a judicial ruling wasn’t necessarily binding on the conscience of the accused. An innocent man might be convicted.
“Jesus in Matt 23 seems to recognize that the Jewish leadership had such an interpretative role.”
I prefer Nolland’s interpretation. Cf. The Gospel of Matthew, pp922-23.
“In fact Jesus establishes his own Sanhedrin in the 70 disciples.”
Where was the ecclesiastical “Sanhedrin” in the early church?
“Further Paul gives ample evidence of a divine gift being had through ordination (2 tim 1:6).”
And what gift would that be? We need to exegete the text. For a good analysis, cf. P. Towner, The Letters to Timothy & Titus, 458f.
“And not to mention the fact that the earliest council was believed to have divine guidance and to be the mechanism for resolving disputes in a normatively divine manner.”
If this is an allusion to Acts 15, the Council of Jerusalem was composed of Apostles, elders, and a sibling of Jesus—not a bunch of bishops, under the heavy hand of the Emperor. So the analogy falls apart at the critical point of comparison.
“The cessation of the apostolic office wouldn’t imply a lack of divine inspiration in the church, which is exactly and explicitly what the ecumenical councils that Protestants profess fealty to claim for themselves.”
i) Many things are hypothetically possible. That’s not the point. It’s a factual question.
Perry, himself, would insist on discontinuities between the Apostolic and subapostolic age. He’s not a Montanist. He doesn’t believe in a continuous succession of Apostles. He doesn’t believe in continuous inscripturation. Just because something is theoretically repeatable doesn’t mean that God repeats the same thing ad infinitum. Let’s have another round of Ten Egyptian Plagues—just because I can!
ii) I don’t profess “fealty” to the ecumenical councils. I agree with them when they agree with Scripture.
“I have to wonder what is the nature of the authority that Protestant think that ministers today operate by-human or divine? And if divine, to what degree, if any? And where does this divine authority come from and how is it transmitted? What is the biblical justification for this view? In short, if Protestants were right it is hard to see todays ministers as continuing the apostolic ministry.”
A minister is authoritative to the degree that he rightly teaches and applies the word of God. His authority is strictly derivative.
A minister is supposed to have a certain aptitude to teach. He should generally cultivate that aptitude through training. In principle, he has the authority of an expert witness.
Now, there are some bright, well-read laymen whose theological know-how compares favorably with their pastor. And there are some layman in cognate fields, like Classics, Egyptology, Assyriology, &c. who may enjoy a far more expert knowledge of the Bible than the average pastor.