Thursday, April 22, 2004

Ten objections to sola scriptura-1

Over the years, Catholic apologetics has raised a number of objections to sola Scriptura. Let's run through the major objections and rebut them one by one.

1. It’s a recipe for chaos:

Catholic apologists often point to the proliferation of Protestant denominations as proof that the right of private judgment is infeasible (cf. Vatican I, preamble). This objection rests on two or three related assumptions: (i) this is an intolerable state of affairs which God would not allow to go unchecked; (ii) God has made provision for some instrumentality that would guard against such disunity, and (iii) the Roman Church does not suffer from this internal strife since it is the repository of this unifying instrumentality. That is perhaps the major objection to the right of private judgment, and therefore calls for the most detailed reply:
(a) The Catholic apologist is taking his own denomination as the standard of comparison, and then pointing as accusing finger at the "schismatics." While this is a natural starting-point for him, it assumes the very claim at issue. I, as a Protestant, do not regard the Roman Church as the yardstick. Otherwise I would be Catholic! Rather, I regard the Roman Church as just one more denomination, and hardly the best.
(b) God put up with a wide diversity of sects and schools of thought in 1C Judaism. We read of Pharisees, Sadducees, Samaritans, Essenes, Zealots, Therapeutae, Jewish Gnostics, Jewish Platonists, Qumranic separatists, as well as the Rabbinical parties of Hillel and Shamai. Doubtless there were many additional groups that our partial and partisan sources have failed to preserve for posterity. Yet God never saw fit to install an infallible Jewish Magisterium in order to prevent this plurality of viewpoints. So the objection is based on nothing more than a seat-of-the-pants hunch about what God is prepared to permit. It doesn’t appeal to any of God’s revealed purposes—the disclosure of his decretive or preceptive will in Scripture. It doesn’t bother to anticipate any concrete counter-examples. Far from there being a presumption in favor of the Catholic claim, the precedent of God’s former dealings with his people goes against that expectation. If we find all this diversity and dissension under the OT dispensation, why assume that the NT economy must operate according to a contrary set of priorities? Wouldn’t the Catholic rationale apply with equal force to OT church? If Christians require the services of a living Magisterium, wouldn’t the Old Covenant community be under the same necessity? Yet it’s clear from the Gospels that none of the rival parties spoke for God in any definitive sense. The priesthood was the only faction with any institutional standing under the Mosaic Covenant, and its members were frequently and fundamentally mistaken in their construal of its ethical obligations, such as the matter of putting to death their prophesied Messiah. So much for a divine teaching office to ensure unity and fidelity.

One of the problems with these utopian scenarios is that they’re premature, reflected a realized eschatology. Utopia awaits heaven and the final state. So much of Catholic apologetics has this armchair quality to it. It makes such large assumptions about what God would never allow to happen. Get up of your chair and take a look out the window! When I observe at the world around me I see that God allows quite a lot. If you want to know what God would allow, you should start with what he has allowed. We can only anticipate the future on the basis of what God has said and done in the past.

As a rule, you can’t disprove a position just because you don’t like the consequences. I’m struck by how many otherwise intelligent, educated people take this solipsistic approach to truth-claims. Most people don’t like cancer, but that doesn’t make it go away. Rather, our attitude should be to study what God has said and done, and then find the wisdom in it. A "dire" consequence may disclose a deeper wisdom in God’s plan for the world.
(c) By excommunicating dissident members, an organization can enforce as much internal unity as it pleases since—by definition—the only people left are likeminded types. So the Catholic appeal is circular. The Magisterium has not succeeded in preventing internal dissension. But its solution has been to externalize some of its internal dissension by exiling certain factions while defining other schools of thought as falling within the bounds of Catholic tradition—even though there’s no real harmony between the respective parties (e.g. Thomists and Molinists), not to mention varieties within a given school. (E.g. versions of Thomism: traditional [Bañez, Scheeben]; transcendental [Marechal, Rahner]; existential [Maritain, Gilson, Rahner], analytical [Geach, Kenny).] So the unity of faith maintained by the Magisterium is a diplomatic and definitional fiction.

I am not denying the right of a denomination to set doctrinal standards and enforce them. But when the Roman Church draws invidious comparisons between its superior unity and the "scandal" or "tragedy" of Protestant sectarianism, this is an illusion fostered by the way in which the Roman Church has chosen to draw the boundaries in the first place. By setting itself up as the point of reference, by glossing over internal divisions and by classifying anything that falls outside its chosen touchstone as beyond the pale it can—no doubt— present an impressively self-serving contrast. By casting the terms of the debate it has rigged the outcome in its favor. It is only because the Catholic apologist is conditioned by this provincial mindset that he finds such an appeal persuasive.
(d) Furthermore, Paul indicates that God deliberately allows for a competition of viewpoints so that the position he himself approves of will emerge by process of comparison and contrast (1 Cor 11:19). One of the unintended services rendered by infidels is in forcing believers to become more thoughtful about their faith. If Voltaire didn’t exist, we’d have to invent him! So the true Church refines its theological understanding by having to fend off infidels from within and without.
(e) I don’t regard the "scandal" of denominationalism as all that scandalous. Granted that all Christians belong to the same family, but in the interests of domestic tranquility many parents have found it necessary to put the boys in separate bedrooms. I’m not endorsing all these denominations. I’d prefer to see everyone in the Calvinist camp. But even Christians who share an identical creed may have differing priorities when it comes to the work and worship of the Church. If all the Reformed bodies were to merge, the style, staffing, message, administration, fellowship and outreach would remain much the same at the level of the local church. They’d just take down the sign outside and put up a new one.
(f) It’s my impression that denominationalism owes less to the Reformation than to nationalism and liberalism. There were many nominal Christians as well as closet heretics, atheists and dissenters in the Medieval Church, but when the Church still enjoyed a measure of temporal power and could enforce the party line on pain of torture, death, dispossession or exile, there was naturally an impressive show of outward conformity. But with the rise of nation-states, monarchs resented a rival power-center meddling in their internal affairs. So this nostalgia for the golden age of undivided Christendom— which Luther supposedly wrecked—rests on an ironically profane foundation.

I don’t see that the Roman Church’s rate of retention or recruitment during the modern era is markedly superior to that of the Protestant "sects." Once it lost its power to coerce dissidents into submission, the Magisterium found that it was limited to the same sanction as its Protestant counterparts— excommunication. (This was also the primary sanction for the OT Church—to be "cut off" from the covenant community.) No more than the Protestant branches does it enjoy absolute sway over its membership. It can’t prevent members from breaking away and forming their own churches. And to a great extent it staves off further schism in its ranks by exceedingly indulgent terms of membership. It opposes abortion but never excommunicates Catholic politicians who are complicit in our public policy. It opposes divorce, yet annulments are freely granted to the rich and famous. It opposes homosexuality but then opposes those who oppose homosexual "rights" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, ¶2357-2358). It opposes the death penalty, but has never excommunicated a Mafia Don.

Given a choice I much prefer a plethora of smaller denominations, some good and some bad, to one big bad church. At least with the Protestant tradition you have an avenue of escape. Far better that than a system that generates the Catholic sex scandal. Once you're committed to your church as the one and only true church, you'll put up with anything, however horrendous. And that is the history of Roman Catholicism.
(g) Likewise, many new denominations are formed as a result of the liberalization of preexisting denominations. Liberals rarely if ever form their own denomination. How could they? Barren theology begets no life. Rather, their modus operandi is to infiltrate and infect a preexisting church and thereby drive out the true believers. Were it not for liberal parasitism, there would be far fewer breakaway denominations.

But that doesn’t represent a novel disagreement. It is only because the faithful continue to believe what they have always believed that they find it necessary to split with a preexisting denomination which has been overrun by a liberal faction that no longer believes the same thing. Schism is as much a mark of doctrinal continuity as it is of superficial disunity. They leave a church because it first left them. Anyone who knows his church history will instantly recognize how true that is.
(h) If denominationalism is such a problem, then the Roman Church is a very large part of the problem since—from my standpoint—it’s just one more denomination. The very phenomenon of the Protestant split to which Catholic apologist points only proves that a Magisterium was unable to prevent dissention and schism. The relation between Catholic and Protestant is often represented as analogous to the relation between the trunk and its branches. But both Catholicism and Protestantism represent offshoots of the Latin Church. Trent is not just a linear continuation of the Medieval Church. The Western Church before Trent was more pluralistic in doctrine than the Roman Church between Trent and Vatican I. For example, the Augustinian tradition, though always a minority report, had enjoyed an honored and distinguished representation in the Medieval Church. Luther himself, as we all know, had belonged to a religious order based on that tradition. But in censuring the Protestants, Trent dismantled some cornerstones of Augustinian soteriology (e.g. total depravity, the efficacy and particularism of grace).
(i) There are Protestant denominations (Lutheran and Reformed) that have retained a far more substantive degree of continuity with Reformation theology in its classic creedal expositions (e.g. The Westminster Confession of Faith; The Three Forms of Unity; The Book of Concord) than Vatican II and post-Vatican II theology can honestly claim in relation to Trent. So it’s very misleading to say that Protestants have gone every which way while Rome has stayed the course. Certainly we see many modern Protestant denominations that are unrecognizable in relation to the theology of the Protestant Reformers. But, of course, one could say the same thing about many Catholic scholars and theologians in relation to Trent. The difference is that Catholics who still believe in Trent are excommunicated (e.g. Lefevbre) whereas there is a continuous tradition of unreconstructed Reformed and Lutheran theology extending from the Reformation down to the present day.
(j) So the right of private judgment did not set a domino effect into motion. And it doesn’t mean that everyone is entitled to his own opinion. Rather, it was set over against blind faith in a self-appointed authority. The principle at stake was that only God’s word enjoys dogmatic authority, and the sense of Scripture has to be established by verifiable methods. It doesn’t cut it to say that Mother Church knows best. Instead, a Bible scholar or theologian should be willing and able to take a layman through the process of reasoning by which he arrived at his interpretation so that the layman can follow the argument and see the conclusion for himself. Invoking sacred tradition is no substitute for responsible exegesis. The right of private judgment is the very opposite of individual autonomy—it’s all about accountability. To be sure, this principle can be abused by the willful. But abusing God’s word carries its own inevitable penalty.
(k) Theologians like Brunner have contributed to the confusion by pretending that it was inconsistent of Protestants to liberate themselves from the tyranny of the papacy—only to turn around and elevate the Bible to the role of a "paper pope." This little jingle is very quotable, but it distorts the motives of the Protestant Reformers. Luther and Calvin were concerned with fidelity, not freedom. They were fighting for the freedom to serve God according to his Word. The magisterial Reformation (as opposed to the Radical Reformation) was never an attack on external authority, per se. Rather, it was an issue of submission to a properly constituted authority—God speaking in his word.

Related to Brunner’s charge is the accusation that conservative Protestants are guilty of "bibliolatry." This is a clever attempt to put conservatives on the defensive. But it’s a self-defeating allegation. Idolatry is a Biblical category, and therefore presupposes Biblical authority and Scriptural definition. So it is nonsensical to claim that allegiance to Scripture conflicts with Scripture. Bible-believing Christians simply pattern their attitude towards Scripture on the attitude modeled by Christ and his Apostles (Cf. B.B. Warfield, Revelation & Inspiration [Baker 2003], Works, vol. 1.) When, conversely, the liberal denies the absolute authority of Scripture, he is absolutizing his own powers of judgment. As such, he’s guilty of auto-idolatry.
(l) Every denomination doesn’t represent a different interpretation of Scripture. And every difference doesn’t represent a disagreement. Many of the different denominations are due to different nationalities. When they all troop over to America it presents quite a spectacle of diversity, but they didn’t all arise due to differences of interpretation.
And as I've argued elsewhere, the superficially vast range of doctrinal and denominational diversity is reducible to how you answer four basic questions: (i) Is the Bible the only rule of faith? (ii) Does man have freewill? (iii) How is the OT fulfilled in the NT? (iv) Are the sacraments a means of grace?
(m) Moreover, these don’t all present a contrast to Catholicism. There are charismatic Catholics. There are Arminian elements in Catholic theology. There are Anglican and Lutheran elements in Catholic theology. There are liberal elements in Catholic theology. So some of these interpretations agree with Catholicism rather than representing schismatic aberrations. Of course, I might view these points of commonality as common errors. But the Roman Church can’t stigmatize them save on pain of self-incrimination.

Quantity makes quality possible. Out of the diversity of denominations it is possible to find a number of good churches. Better to have a lot of lifeboats, some of which are seaworthy, and others leaky and listing, than to be trapped aboard a burning and sinking ship.
(n) Appeal is sometimes made to Jn 10:16 and 17:20-21. But the unity envisioned here is ethnic and diachronic rather than institutional and synchronic, as the Gentiles are inducted into the covenant community (cf. 10:16a) and the faith is passed on from one generation to the next (17:20).
(o) The right of private judgment has undoubted generated a great diversity of theological opinion, which is—in turn—reflected in a diversity of denominations. But we’ve always had this. It’s easy to forget about Donatists and Montanists, Novatianists and Waldensians, to name a few pre-Reformation movements, because they were on the losing side of the debate and tended to dissipate over time. So it’s not as if sola scriptura in-traduced a radically destabilizing dynamic into an otherwise cohesive church.

Remember, too, that in Reformed theology, all this diversity is a providential diversity. Catholic apologists have traditionally treated the Reformation as if it were a runaway train. But in the plan of God, everything that happens is either good in itself or a means to an ulterior good. There is wheat among the tares. The field exists for the sake of the wheat, not the tares. But in this dispensation you cannot weed out all the tares without uprooting the wheat in the process (cf. Mt 13:24-30). We don’t judge the condition of the field by the presence or even prevalence of the tares. What matters is the state of the wheat.
(p) Related to (o), critics of the Reformation often appeal to the Vincentian canon as some sort of living ideal which the Reformation violated. This appeal assumes a continuity and commonality of belief throughout the history of the Church, up until the Reformation. But isn’t that an illusion? What was the express creed of your average medieval peasant? Or, for that matter, of the village priest? It is natural to form our impression of the Middle Ages from Medieval writers. But that is hardly representative of popular belief. At a time when illiteracy and folk religion were the rule, it isn’t very authentic or meaningful to speak of a core creed shared by the masses. An Athanasius or Aquinas, A Kempis or Dante by no means stands for a popular consensus. Such an identification leaves the laity entirely out of view, and a large chunk of the lower clergy as well. If anything, it was the Reformation, with its emphasis on Bible literacy, which brought the masses on board. There can be no majority report when the majority is too illiterate and ignorant to exercise explicit faith.

2. It presumes the right of private judgment:

A Catholic apologist might object that my whole critique represents a tendentious exercise in the right of private judgment, assuming one of the principal points dividing Catholic and Protestant. When we quote Scripture against the Roman Church we’re taking for granted our competence to interpret Scripture aright quite apart from the Magisterium. But Rome denies that very premise. It must be established before it can be utilized. By way of reply:
(i) Even if this represented a genuine problem, and even if there were such a thing as the Magisterium, appealing to that office only relocates the original problem, for unless the laity are competent to interpret magisterial teachings, they cannot comply with them. Whatever complications are involved in exegetical and systematic theology are dwarfed by the scope of canon law. To plow through the Fathers, Doctors, Councils and Popes, reading them against a historical backdrop (minutes, correspondence, &c.), producing critical editions (textual criticism), collating the material and sifting it all according to degrees of normativity—is quite beyond the resources of a full time research scholar or professional theologian—much less a busy bishop or his parish priest. Even if the Pope were ordinarily immunized from doctrinal error in his public teaching, that instruction must still be popularized at the seminary and parish level. So it still amounts to a trickle down process, with the mass inculcation and application delegated to an army of fallible foot-soldiers. Again, Catholic scholars write commentaries too. They bring to this task the same set of fallible faculties as their Protestant counterparts. They have to exercise private judgment. While their publications must pass muster with an official censor, that, too is a form of fallible peer review. The same applies to Catholic theologians. The exercise is especially lame when the censor is not in the same intellectual league as the scholar or theologian under review.
(ii) The right of private judgment wasn’t some apologetic ruse invented by the Protestant Reformers. The Bible is a public revelation, addressed to the common people (e.g. Exod 24:7; Deut 31:11; Neh 8:3; Jer 36:6; Lk 4:16; Acts 13:15; 15:21; Col 4:16; 1 Thes 5:27; 1 Tim 4:13; Rev 1:3-4), and adapted to popular understanding (2 Cor 1:13; Eph 3:4). The OT prophets make direct appeal to the Mosaic Covenant when addressing their remarks to the congregation of Israel. Christ and the Apostles so the same. All this assumes that the rank-and-file are able to follow an exegetical argument. Indeed, they are held no less accountable for misunderstanding the message! Christ often pulled rank on the religious leaders as he addressed the masses and called on them to judge the doctrine of the religious establishment by straightforward appeal to Scripture. The same practice operates in the Book of Acts. As a review of Luke-Acts also makes plain, religious instruction in the synagogue followed a fairly informal arrangement. There was no elaborate command-structure corresponding to the Catholic hierarchy. And that’s because the Mosaic code itself did not deem it necessary to make any such provision, even though it can get very detailed when it needs to be.
(iii) For that matter, even councils like Trent, Vatican I & Vatican II cite Scriptural prooftexts in support of their dogmas. Isn’t this an appeal to the reader? To a reader who is not a member of the Magisterium—since these documents are generated by the Magisterium and addressed to the church at large? Doesn’t such an appeal assume that the reader is able to connect the content of the prooftext with the content of the dogma? The same applies to papal pronouncements like "Munificentissimus Deus." And doesn’t that comparison invite the possibility of falsification? Unless these prooftexts do, in fact, implicate the dogmas to which they’re assigned, their citation is duplicitous.
(iv) One of the standing ironies in Catholic apologetics is the spectacle of ordinary priests and laymen in lay organizations churning out books by and for laymen, sternly admonishing the laity that laymen are incompetent to speak with authority on matters of faith and morals. Here we have priests and laymen who—by definition—fall outside the ranks of the Magisterium, making a case on behalf of the Magisterium. Isn’t this a self-refuting exercise? Shouldn’t the hierarchy be left to speak for itself? The irony is never more acute than when a renegade Protestant tries to justify his defection. Shouldn’t he refer all inquiries to his bishop? Shouldn’t he let Mother Church do all the talking and speak on his behalf, rather than vice versa? While he now claims to be a Catholic, he still acts like a Protestant! A Catholic apologist never makes a more compelling case for the Protestant rule of faith than when he takes it upon himself to pen a popular apologetic against our rule of faith!

The lay apologist is having to exercise the right of private judgment in the very act of denying it. How does his position differ in practice from the practice of the Protestant apologist? Why can’t the Pope fight his own battles? Why did the bishops at Vatican II require the services of the periti?
(v) If the Bible can’t be interpreted without benefit of a living teaching office, why bother with a "dead" book at all? What function does the Bible perform if you have a hotline to God via the living voice of Mother Church?
(vi) Rome herself recognizes the validity of the Orthodox communion. No less a spokesman than Cardinal Ratzinger grants that while "the West may point to the absence of the office of Peter in the East—it must, nevertheless, admit that, in the Eastern Church, the form and content of the Church of the Fathers is present in unbroken continuity" (Principles of Catholic Theology [Ignatius, 1987], 196). That being so, a papal Magisterium is superfluous to the preservation of faith and morals.
(vii) Karl Rahner freely concedes the right of private judgment in submitting to the Church in the first place:
...We may not of course obscure the obvious fact that the free acceptance of the church and its authority is itself once again an act of freedom and decision for which every Christian including a Catholic Christian has to take responsibility in the loneliness of his own conscience. Nor can he depend on the authority of the church as such at this point in the history of his freedom. Moreover, the fact that the authority of the church does become effective for an individual Christian always remains based upon this "lonely" decision. There is no essential difference on this point between a Catholic Christian and an Evangelical Christian who recognizes any authoritative instance at all, for example, Holy Scripture, as coming "from without" and hence binding, Foundations of Christian Faith, (Seabury 1990), 346.

3. The Church is prior to the NT and gave us the canon:

Sola Scriptura is obviously backwards since the Church preexisted the NT and indeed gave us the NT. Why, Paul himself even refers to the Church as the pillar and foundation of truth (1 Tim 3:15). Or so goes the argument.
This popular objection betrays the absence of any historical consciousness. It begins with the Church as a finished product, instead of considering the formative phases of the Church and canon alike. So the objection is equivocal:
(i) While the NT Church preexisted the NT canon, it didn’t preexist the word of God, for the NT Church was constituted by apostolic preaching. So both in terms of historical and causal priority, the Word preceded the Church. The only difference is a merely modal rather than substantive distinction between the spoken and written word.
(ii) Of course, it is a non-sequitur to assert that priority in time implies priority in rank. Moses lived before the advent of Christ, but that doesn’t make Moses superior to Christ.
(iii) It fails to distinguish between the individual origin of the canon and its final formation. In terms of their origin, the books of the NT were enjoined on the NT churches. When James or John, Peter or Paul wrote a gospel, epistle or apocalypse, this was sent to a local church or directed to the church at large and circulated widely (Gal 1:2; Col 4:16; Jas 1:1; 1 Pet 1:1). The church was obliged to submit to the authority of this document. It didn’t issue from the Church but was issued to the Church. The Church was the addressee. The NT documents are the work of inspired individuals. They are not conciliar documents. The Church has a role in the general dissemination of the NT, but that is not at all the same thing as a productive role. Without the Post Office I might not get my mail, but that doesn’t make the Post Office prior to the mail it delivers—not in any relevant or important sense of priority.

When copies of various NT writings were made and distributed, this marked out an informal stage of canonization. But the collective authority of the canon presupposes its distributive authority: there would be no motive for compiling the NT documents absent prior recognition of their normative status. So the principle of canonicity is not a gradual process. Rather, that principle is there at the outset and drives the process.
(iv) The passage in 1 Tim 3:15 probably has the local rather than the universal church in view. As patrologist J.N.D. Kelly has pointed out,
"As in 3:5, there is no definite article before "church," and this suggests that Paul is thinking primarily of the particular local community...What Paul is saying is that it is the function and responsibility of each congregation to support, bolster up, and thus safeguard the true teaching by its continuous witness. We should note (a) that "buttress" is probably a more accurate rendering of the Greek endraiwma
(nowhere else found) than "foundation" or "ground" (AV), and (b) that the local church is described as "a pillar," etc., not "the pillar," etc., because there are many local churches throughout the world performing this role (A Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles [Baker, 1986], 87-88).

There is, of course, a part/whole relation between the local and the universal church, so that ultimately we’re talking about a single entity. But one can’t equate Paul’s reference to a local church situation with a centralized and pyramidal agency where truth is vested in a top-down teaching office. Rather, this passage has in view the informal witness of the local church membership. Paul is talking about "a" church as "a" pillar of truth.
(v) Before the NT canon you had the NT church, but before the NT church you had the OT canon. And the Mosaic canon constituted the covenant community. It supplied the charter documents. It preceded and created the priesthood and high holy days, rites, rituals and canon law.

4. The case for Scripture is not self-contained:

Sola scriptura isn’t feasible since many extraneous conditions must be met for Scripture to be God's word or to be perceived as such by us. The Bible must be interpreted, which introduces an outside agent is into the process. You can’t break into the circle of sola scriptura without breaking out of it. Or so goes the argument.

Before proceeding with a reply, we need to define our terms. Sola scriptura doesn’t mean that Scripture is the only source of knowledge. What it does mean, at least as I’m using the expression, is that Scripture is the only source of dogma, and the only source of saving knowledge, as well as the supreme source and standard of human knowledge generally—regardless of its subject-matter. It also follows from this that there can be no higher authority or equipollent authority to authorize the authority of Scripture.

Now it’s true that in order for Scripture to function as the rule of faith, a number of extraneous conditions must be met. But the fact that the reader stands outside Scripture, and must be brought into the interpretive loop, does not compromise the hegemony of Scripture, for this principle was never designed to operate in a vacuum, but presupposes a larger theological framework. The Catholic satisfies this condition with a high doctrine of the church. But the Calvinist satisfies this condition with a high doctrine of providence. The Catholic has a low doctrine of Scripture because he has a low doctrine of providence. So he must compensate with a high doctrine of the church. But the Calvinist can maintain a high doctrine of Scripture because he has a high doctrine of providence. The God of revelation is also the God of providence. The God who inspires the prophets is also in charge of the interpretive process. This doesn't mean that the reader is rendered infallible. But both true and false interpretations are under God's control and subservient to his designs. If individuals or multitudes stray into heresy and apostasy, that is not a historical accident but the outworking of reprobation.