Thursday, April 22, 2004

Ten objections to sola scriptura-2

5. Scripture itself appeals to tradition:

Protestants are guilty of applying a double standard when they accept Scriptural appeals to tradition (e.g. Acts 7:38,53; Gal 3:19; 2 Thes 2:15; Heb 2:2; 11:34ff.) while rejecting Patristic appeals to tradition. Or so goes the argument. By way or reply:
(i) Since the sacred authors are inspired, their appeal to tradition automatically validates the tradition in question. But it hardly validates every tradition to which they do "not" appeal. Even the Roman Catholic is far from equalizing every tradition as normative. He is quite selective about which traditions he privileges.

Since the Fathers are uninspired, the parallel between canonically sanctioned tradition and extra-canonically sanctioned tradition falls apart at the critical point of comparison.
(ii) The role of angels in the giving of the law isn’t even dependent on tradition extra-canonical tradition. Rather, it goes back to the angel of the Lord and the Lord’s angelic retinue (cf. Exod 3:2; 23:20-23; 33:18-23; Deut 33:2; Ps 68:17; Isa 63:9; Mt 10:14; Jn 13:20; Acts 7:35).
(iii) This objection trades on an equivocation of terms. The Protestant never denied the principle of apostolic tradition or oral instruction. It’s just that oral transmission suffers from a high decay rate. Word-of-mouth may be adequate when it comes straight from the mouth of an Apostle to the ear of a contemporary. But there’s a categorical difference between the viva voce of the Apostles and a "process of living Tradition" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, ¶83.). Oral tradition is no substitute for a permanent record. It was never intended to supply a common norm for future reference. That’s precisely why revelation was committed to writing (cf. Exod 17:14; Deut 31:9,13,26; Ps 102:18; Isa 30:8). Human memory is too untrustworthy to rely on oral transmission over the long haul. The rediscovery of the written law code (2 Kgs 22:8ff. 2 Chron 34:14ff.) powerfully illustrates the inadequacies of unaided memory in keeping a people from apostasy—a point made by R. Beckwith, The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church (Eerdmans, 1986), 66. To take another example, (a) Papias was, according to Irenaeus, a younger contemporary of the Apostle John. He made an earnest effort to collect the agrapha of Christ. Yet despite his proximity to primitive recollection, his gleanings are remarkably meager, and have an unmistakably derivative flavor. Owing to the short shelf-life of oral tradition, as well as the incentive to fabricate tradition (e.g. the NT apocrypha), no formal authority attaches to mere tradition, although some of it may afford probative evidence for past practice.

(iv)Moreover, Sacred Tradition, as currently redefined, is not the same as an oral mode of transmission. It ceases to be a conservative force and becomes a revisionary dynamic. Again, Jesus warns us against the dangers of man-made tradition, and judges that tradition by the standard of Scripture (Mt 7:7-8,13). But when human tradition comes to be identified with a divine teaching office, it is then impervious to the correction of Scripture, and we’re right back to the situation that summoned forth our Lord’s reproof.

(v) Sometimes a Catholic apologist will caricature sola scriptura as implying that Apostolic tradition was valid right up until the moment the ink dried on Rev 22:21, at which point it instantly ceased to be authoritative. Of course the oral teaching of the Apostles was normative for those who got it straight from the horse’s mouth or their associates. The real issue concerns the preservation and verification of authentic tradition for later generations.

(vi) Furthermore, Catholic apologists play a bait-and-switch scam. For they lure the Protestant by appealing to examples where the Bible refers to an oral source, and then shift to a lax principle of dogmatic development in order to justify the Assumption of Mary or the treasury of merit. Now in the nature of the case, the present derives from the past. Hence it is always possible to plot a historical trajectory from any past belief to a present-day belief. But this either proves too much or too little inasmuch as a Protestant apologist could deploy the very same theological method to validate his own tradition.

6. Where does Scripture teach sola scriptura?

Catholic apologists might object that I’ve been assuming the principle all along without bothering to establish it in the first place. Where does Scripture teach sola scriptura? Where does it rule out sacred tradition? Let’s consider some half dozen replies.

(I) Even on its own terms, the Roman Church has failed to offer a coherent alternative inasmuch as the concept of tradition has become a plaything in the hands of the Magisterium. What is meant by sacred tradition? Is it oral tradition? Early tradition? The consent of the Fathers? The consent of the Doctors? The consent of the faithful? The charism of the Magisterium? The concept has mutated from being a body of unwritten instructions that Christ committed to the Apostles to a "process of living Tradition." This is not a natural evolutionary continuum, but rather a revolutionary break with the original point.
Just consider the historical revisionism of Ratzinger: "Before Mary’s bodily Assumption into heaven was defined, all theological faculties in the world were consulted for their opinion. Our teachers’ answer was emphatically negative... ’Tradition’ was identified with what could be proved on the basis of texts. Altaner,
the patrologist from Würzburg...had proven in a scientifically persuasive manner that the doctrine of Mary’s bodily Assumption into heaven was unknown before the fifth century; this doctrine, therefore, he argued, could not belong to the ‘apostolic tradition.’ And this was his conclusion, which my teachers at Munich shared. This argument is compelling if you understand ‘tradition’ strictly as the handling down of fixed formulas and texts...But if you conceive of ‘tradition’ as a living process whereby the Holy Spirit introduces us to the fullness of truth and teaches us how to understand what previously we could still not grasp (cf. Jn 16:12-13), then subsequent ‘remembering’ (cf. Jn 16:4, for instance) can come to recognize what it had not caught sight of previously and yet w as handed down in the original Word," Milestones (Ignatius, 1998), 58-59. Aside from reversing the traditional basis of Catholic apologetics, hindsight presupposes a sighting; absent historical documentation, there is nothing to remember and reflect on.

Such a ductile definition, which resembles the house that Jack built, may save appearances, but the reluctance to stake out a firm position means that your position never takes the shape of an identifiable alternative. And so it doesn’t challenge people to believe otherwise.
(ii) It is instructive to observe how even Leo XIII must fall back on the Protestant rule of faith in order to establish the Magisterium:
Since the divine and infallible Magisterium of the Church rests also on the authority of Holy Scripture, the first thing to be done is to vindicate the trustworthiness of the sacred records at least as human documents, from which can be clearly proved, as from primitive and authentic testimony, the Divinity and the mission of Christ our Lord, the institution of a hierarchical Church and the primacy of Peter and his successors," The Papal Encyclicals (Perian 1990), 2:333b.
(iii) The principle of sola scriptura is implicit in the finality of the canon. There is always more that could be said. Scripture itself concedes this possibility (cf. Jn 20:30-31; 21:25; Eph 6:21-22; Col 4:7-9; Heb 9:5b). In that respect there is never any absolutely natural cut-off point. But for that selfsame reason, a somewhat arbitrary line has to be drawn, for a complete record would be completely unmanageable. To admit an element of arbitrariness here is not to say that it’s unreasonable or unnecessary. The point is not to say everything, but to say enough.

Scripture is the necessary and sufficient source of saving knowledge (2 Tim 3:15-17). Not only is further information gratuitous, but Paul expressly warns the Church not to go beyond what is written—employing a stock citation formula for Scripture (1 Cor 4:6). This is, of course, pegged to progressive revelation, but the canon is closed.

The very fact that, unlike some other religions and cults, Christianity does not have an open canon implies that ongoing revelation or its functional equivalent (the Magisterium) is both unnecessary and presumptuous. God himself drew the boundaries by withholding further revelation.
(iv) It should go without saying that sola scriptura is mainly a norm for the readers of Scripture and not the writers of Scripture. An inspired author doesn’t have to appeal to Scripture in order to advance a claim since his own words enjoy canonical authority. This is where Scripture comes from. He is making up inspired Scripture as he goes along. Again, it is obviously anachronistic to expect that a NT writer would make systematic appeal to the NT. When, therefore, it is asked, Where does Scripture teach sola scriptura?—we have to keep these elementary distinctions in mind. What is remarkable is how often the sacred authors do invoke prior revelation, even though they could speak on their own authority. In so doing they are conditioning the reader to honor the principle of sola Scriptura.
(v) Loyalty to God’s revealed will, and not tradition, is always made the acid test of religious fidelity in sacred history. As John Frame has remarked, after copious citation, "The whole OT history is a history of obedience and disobedience: obedience and disobedience to what? To God’s commands; and after Exod 20, to God’s written word!" ("Scripture Speaks for Itself," God’s Inerrant Word, J.W. Montgomery, ed. [Bethany, 1974], 199). Some of its contents originally took the form of oral address, but that doesn’t amount to oral tradition since the practice was to immediately commit such disclosures to writing (e.g. Exod 17:14; 24:3-4; Deut 33:9,22,24-28; Josh 24:26; 1 Sam 20:25; Rev 1:11,19; 21:5).
(vi) Since so much of Christian doctrine consists in truths that are far removed from us in time and space—from events in the distant past or future, the invisible present (E.g. spiritual warfare; the intermediate state), and God’s delitescent decree, to the afterlife and age to come—our only access to such information is via a public revelation. So the principle of sola scriptura is also rooted in the principle of a revealed religion.
(vii) The burden of proof doesn’t rest on the Protestant. All the major branches of Christendom—Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, and Protestant—at least pay lip-service to the supreme authority of Scripture. And they all formally deny the continuance of revelation—at least of the canonical variety. That being the case, the Protestant doesn’t even have to show where Scripture itself expressly or implicitly rules out such a role for sacred tradition. It is sufficient for him to show that, as a matter of inevitable practice, this appeal interferes with the authority and authentic interpretation of Scripture. It subordinates the voice of Scripture to the voice of tradition.

One should add that the antiquity of tradition is no evidence of apostolicity, for orthodoxy and heresy coexisted in the apostolic churches. The bulk of the NT correspondence was addressed to doctrinal and disciplinary crises that arose in Apostolic sees. So even if we could trace a tradition all the way back to Apostolic times, or to an Apostolic See, no less, that wouldn’t be the same as tracing it back to Apostolic teaching, for as soon as an Apostle was away from one church to minister to another, error could quickly flare up in his absence. This lies on the face of many NT letters. So it is quite blind to contend that the antiquity of tradition carries any presumption in favor of its apostolic pedigree. By that measure, Simon Magus was a greater champion of orthodoxy than Athanasius!

7. Scripture is insufficient to address many topical issues:

Sola scriptura is obviously not a sufficient rule of faith since we are constantly confronted with many moral issues not addressed in Holy Writ, such as those raised by bioethics. Or so goes the argument. By way of reply:
(i) The ethical instruction of Scripture is based on general norms, case studies and priority structures. The answers are not all preformulated. Rather, the Bible supplies us with sufficient criteria to acquit our obligations.
(ii) The Protestant position is that Scripture is sufficient to instruct us in our du-ties before God and man. The fact that there are questions not answered by Scripture does not imply that sola scriptura is inadequate, but only that we're in a condition of diminished responsibility on questions outside the purview of Scripture. Our responsibility is limited to what God holds us responsible for.
(iii) As I've said before, a high doctrine of Scripture goes hand-in-hand with a high doctrine of providence. I can do God’s will without necessarily knowing his will. God doesn’t dump the Bible in our lap and then retire to Mt. Olympus.
(iii) The Catholic Church doesn’t offer any alternative. While a popular apologist may make grandiose claims for his Church and hold the Protestants to inhuman standards of confidence, the senior policy-makers at the Vatican are more chaste and chastened in their ambitions. Consider Cardinal Ratzinger’s humble admission:
We are in fact constantly confronted with problems where it isn’t possible to find the right answer in a short time. Above all in the case of problems having to do with ethics, particularly medical ethics...We finally had to say, after very long studies, "Answer that for now on the local level; we aren’t far enough along to have full certainty about that."

Again, in the area of medical ethics, new possibilities, and with them new borderline situations, are constantly arising where it is not immediately evident how to apply principles. We can’t simply conjure up certitude...There needn’t always be universal answers. We also have to realize our limits and forgo answers where they aren’t simply is not the case that we want to go around giving answers in every situation..." (J. Ratzinger, Salt of the Earth [Ignatius, 1996], 100-101).

One has only to consider the rival schools of casuistry that arose in the history of Catholic discussion (e.g. probabilism, probabiliorism, equiprobabilism) to recognize that the Magisterium does not serve up ready-made answers on a wide range of pressing problems in moral theology. So the romantic notion, so popular in Catholic apologetics, that the Roman church is a rock of moral assurance in an otherwise uncertain world is simply out of step with own tradition. The extraordinary Magisterium is extremely selective about its moral pronouncements, and even then it contents itself with general norms, while leaving the concrete application to fallible judgment.

8. Tradition is prior to the canonization of Scripture:

Not only did Christians have to rely on oral tradition before the NT was written, but for a long time afterwards inasmuch as it took centuries before the NT canon was finalized. Or so goes the argument. By way of reply:
(i) As we know from such well-traveled Christians as Apollos, Paul, Philip, Priscilla and Aquilla, the early church enjoyed an extensive communications network. So there’s no reason to suppose that the NT literature either could not or did not circulate widely and rapidly. (Cf. R. Bauckham [ed.], The Gospels for All Christians [Eerdmans 1998]).

Indeed, our Patristic and MS tradition—which is both chronologically primitive and geographically diverse—testifies to just such a circulation. And for the generation right after the Apostles, a reliable source of oral tradition was also available from insiders likeTimothy, Titus and the Ephesian elders—to name some of the few we know about. By the time the second generation died off the dissemination of the NT would have been quite widespread.
(ii) It’s an elementary mistake to confuse the time-frame for distributing the NT books with the time-frame for their initial reception and acceptance. Any standard work on the NT canon will document an early and diverse representation for most of the NT books.

9. Any defense of Scripture is necessarily extraneous to Scripture itself:

Any criteria the Protestant uses to define and defend sola scriptura are necessarily man-made, and therefore the whole exercise is self-defeating inasmuch as it violates the very principle it is advancing. Or so goes the argument. By way of reply:
(i) The Bible is a self-contained revelation. So the Protestant is simply starting with what God has given us. God chose to commit certain revelations to writing. God chose to preserve certain written revelations. It is God who set these concrete boundaries. The Bible is tangible and accessible whereas tradition is an abstract construct. It requires an external standard to isolate and identify "Sacred Tradition" and extract it from the swamp of raw materials and rival traditions. And it takes still another standard to apply the external standard to the interpretation of Sacred Tradition. If you deny the self-evidentiary character of Scripture, then you’re left with a vicious critical regress. But the definition of sola scriptura is secondary insofar as it presupposes the public, existential event of Scripture. The definition doesn’t constitute the fact. It is God who has drawn these lines in history.
(ii) In fairness, this reply depends on the identity of the canon. That demands a separate argument, to be made on a separate occasion. But even on this level, it should be kept in mind that Rome did not have an official canon before Trent, and only defined the Catholic canon in reaction to the Protestant canon. This was not a settled question in Catholic dogma, but merely reopened an old debate between the Church Fathers (e.g., Jerome v. Augustine), such that Rome could not invoke the universal consent of the Fathers. The Protestant canon is prior to the Catholic canon.

10. Church history shows that Scripture is not a sufficient rule of faith:

History proves that sola scriptura is not a sufficient rule of faith. On the one hand, Protestants disagree with each other over the meaning of Scripture. On the other hand, Catholics disagree with Protestants over the meaning of Scripture. Or so goes the argument. By way of reply:
(i) What we should ask ourselves at the outset is, What purpose is served by a rule of faith? What is it supposed to do? A rule of faith isn’t a substitute for sanctification or church discipline. A rule of faith is not a trouble-shooting device for every ill afflicting the Church. The fact that Christians may misapply the rule of faith no more invalidates that rule than blaming the multiplication tables if a crook uses a calculator to cheat on his taxes. And the further fact that the reprobate twist the Scriptures to their own destruction is a sign of poetic irony and divine justice. I’m no less answerable to God if I twist the Scripture than if submit to them.

No rule of faith can guarantee compliance. And the history of the Magisterium certainly doesn’t present an exception to this. The Roman church never relied on its own rule of faith ensure doctrinal conformity. To the contrary, it is notorious for its apparatus of enforced conformity (e.g. interdict; ex communication; the Index; the Inquisition). And even its most Draconian measures failed to secure uniform acquiescence.

God sent prophets to testify against Israel. Yet that didn’t keep the nation from falling away. So did the prophets fail? And if God commissioned them, does this implicate a failure on the part of God himself? But we know that national apostasy was instrumental in God’s redemptive plan by throwing emphasis on the necessity of a Savior to come.
(ii) Catholics keep judging sola scriptura by some utopian ideal. But I’m in no position to say what represents an idea state of affairs since that requires a retrospective standpoint. I would have to be able to see the present in the light of the future fulfillment of God’s design for history. The Fall, the Flood, the Egyptian bondage, the Babylonian Exile, and Good Friday didn’t look like an idea state of affairs at the time, but each event had a role in God’s redemptive purpose for the world.

Catholics approach this issue as if we were debating a hypothetical question, viz. What are the respective advantages or disadvantages of sola scriptura over against a Magisterium? But the real question comes down to an a posteriori and not an a priori question, viz. What rule of faith has God, in fact, imposed on his Church? That is the question. It is not an abstract conjecture or comparative judgment.
(iii) The Catholic objection proves too much. For if sola scriptura were such an inadequate rule of faith, then the alternative is certainly not to be found in the direction of interposing multiplied layers of bureaucracy and tradition between the individual believer and the will of God. That would render God’s will less accessible to the believer, and not more so. Rather, if we accept the premise of the objection, that would be an argument for daily private revelation. But the very existence of Scripture as a public revelation stands against that presumption. So there isn’t any objection to sola scriptura that couldn’t be turned against the Magisterium. The presence of a Magisterium hasn’t prevented internal dissension in the Catholic Church or massive defection (e.g. the Great Schism; the Reformation).


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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)."

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