Wednesday, July 02, 2008

The sufficiency of Scripture

Perry Robinson has been a very busy boy, popping up on Evangelical blogs to market Eastern Orthodoxy. He’s done so at Green Baggins, and he’s done so at Parchment & Pen. I attempted to post a reply, but my comment was “truncated per site policy.”

I take it that Patton wants to pitch his blog to the attention span of a kindergartner. Well, it’s his blog, so he’s welcome to be a merchant of mediocrity on his own blog.

But since I have my own blog, I’ll repost my comment here, minus the preschool word limit.

“[Perry Robinson] Your examples are irrelevant . Theological liberalism is relatively new. You’d expect in the 400 years prior to the advent of theological liberalism that Classical Protestants would be converging theologically, but they didn’t. In fact, they did the opposite.”

“If the theory were true, you’d expect the intelligent people with competence in the languages over a long period of time just using the same ore data to come to significant agreement.”

“As for belief about what, lets take a major Christian teaching like say baptism. You’d think that in 500 years, give or take, Calvinists, Lutherans and Baptists would make some significant headway. Or take polity, the eucharist, predestination, Christological differences, etc.”

He keeps repeating and paraphrasing this objection, but you get the drift.

i) Why would we expect various Protestant traditions to converge over time? Perry is very naïve about human psychology.

Once a theological position wins enough converts, it tends to be self-reproducing. Social conditioning kicks in. Kids grow up in a home with a particular religious tradition. They attend a church with the same tradition. They may be sent to religious schools with the same tradition.

Consider countries with national churches. The whole culture indoctrinates and reinforces a particular religious tradition. One’s individual identity is bound up with one’s social identity. Kin, clan, and country.

Religious adherents have emotional ties to their fellow adherents. We certainly see this in the case of the high-church tradition, with its national churches. Where religious affiliation and ethnic loyalty merge.

So, unless you suffer from Perry’s sociological naïveté, what you’d expect is stability rather than fluidity as a particular theological tradition becomes institutionalized and handed down from one generation to the next.

ii) Moreover, there’s a period of theological consolidation following the initial “revolution.” A period of internal development as second-generation theologians produce a more systematic version of original position, taking various elements to their logical extreme and trying to create a tight-knit set of mutually supportive propositions. For example, Lutherans formulate their Christology to underwrite their sacramentology.

So what we’d actually expect is increasing divergence rather than convergence over time as the tradition hardens, as adherents develop what is distinctive to their position,

Moreover, opponents raise stock objections to the position, while proponents respond with stock answers. So, pretty soon, there’s very little room for progress since both sides are merely recycling the same arguments and counterarguments rather than advancing the argument.

iii) Furthermore, people have an emotional reaction to certain doctrines. They find some doctrines appealing and others repellent. For example, many people reject predestination because they dislike it. And they’re quite candid about their motives. They don’t like the consequences of predestination, and that’s it.

To take another example, high churchmen have a deep emotional stake in sacramental realism. Their assurance of salvation is vested in the ability of a priest to confine Jesus to a piece of bread. They know they have Jesus by having him in a wafer—like grace in spray cans. As such, they’re very resistant to anyone who would rob them of their shortcut to heaven.

“Is Scripture sufficiently clear on baptism? The Eucharist? Christology? You’d think that after 500 years and running the Lutherans, the Reformed and the Baptists, using the same data (scripture) and being competent in the biblical languages would be making some kind of convergence in these areas, but they haven’t.”

Here Perry’s ploy is to prejudge the scope of Scriptural sufficiency, then deem Scripture to be insufficient because Christians don’t agree on certain issues. But that begs the question.

Perry is beginning with his own theologian priorities, then measuring the sufficiency or insufficiency of Scripture by that extraneous stipulation. But why in the world should we accept that assumption?

Like all high churchmen, Perry never begins with God. Never begins with revelation. Never begins with divine precedent.

Rather, he begins with his preconception of the way things ought to be. If Scripture doesn’t measure up to his preconception, then Scripture is insufficient.

But a truly pious mind would broach the issue from the opposite end. God’s word is sufficient for his purposes. One reason we have ongoing debates between paedobaptists and credobaptists is because the Biblical data is someone inconclusive.

Does that mean Scripture is insufficient? If would only be insufficient on the gratuitous assumption that if it were sufficient, it would settle this issue once and for all. But why should we assume that?

Why not judge God’s intentions by God’s performance? It was certainly within his power to reveal more on the subject of baptism than he did. If God didn’t speak to that issue in enough detail to resolve the debate beyond reasonable doubt, then shouldn’t we leave it where God left it? Shouldn’t we respect God’s silence?

Why should we try to be more certain about something than God has given us cause to be certain about? If God, in his wisdom, has disclosed more of his mind on some things than others, then shouldn’t we calibrate our beliefs accordingly? Degrees of belief commensurate with degrees of revelation?

Why should a question be more important to me than it is to God? If God has chosen not to answer all our questions, then the problem is not with the lack of answers, but with the questions. We’re asking the wrong questions. We should limit ourselves to questions that God has answered. Where God is silent, that’s a point of liberty.

It’s not my Christian responsibility to answer questions God has chosen to leave unanswered. It’s not my Christian responsibility to be more specific than God’s word.

I’m not saying for a fact that the paedobaptist/credobaptist debate is stalemated. In part, I’m accepting Perry’s illustration of the sake of argument. Assuming, ex hypothesi, that the Biblical data does not permit a definitive or even probable conclusion, how does that impugn the sufficiency of Scripture?

Sufficient for what? Sufficient is a relative term. Sufficient in relation to what? In relation to God’s intentions—that’s what. Sufficient to discharge our duties to God and man.

“That being the case, I think this points to the formal insufficiency of the Scriptures. More to the point, if the Scriptures were formally sufficient, you wouldn’t need words like homoosious because Biblical language would always and only map on to one concept. But natural languages don’t work that way, which is why you do need words like homoousios.”

Other issues aside, if this proves the formal insufficiency of Scripture, then it also proves the formal insufficiency of Perry’s alternative. How did Christians manage before the Council of Nicea? Did they need a word like homoousios before Nicea? If, on the one hand, they needed that word, but didn’t have it (in the centuries before Nicea), then Perry’s rule of faith is “formally insufficient.”

But if, on the other hand, they didn’t need it, since they didn’t have it, then Perry’s rule of faith is superfluous. What’s the point of an ecumenical council (according to Robinson) if not to supply a need? But if the need went unmet before the council was convened, then how needful is the need of “homoousios”?

“As I noted before, the fact that we require words like homoousios seems to show that the bible is not formally sufficient. As far as I know, the Scriptures no where declare that they are formally sufficient.”

This is tendentious. He posits a condition which Scripture is supposed to meet. If Scripture were sufficient, it would be “formally” sufficient. Yet it never claims that for itself—hence, Scripture must be insufficient.

But that conclusion is an artifact of Perry’s premise. He holds Scripture to a standard of his own making, then deems Scripture to be deficient if it doesn’t submit to his demands. But that begs the question of whether the Bible must be ‘sufficient’ as Perry defines sufficiency.

With Perry, it’s always a game of question-framing. Act as though there’s a standing presumption that if Scripture were sufficient, it would be “formally” sufficient, and—what is more—it would declare itself to be formally sufficient. Absent that declaration, then Scripture must be insufficient.

But his reasoning is viciously circular. There’s no prior expectation that Scripture must be “formally” sufficient, or declare its formal sufficiency, for Scripture to be sufficient for God’s purposes.

“I think people can correctly interpret the Bible apart from tradition (of which the bible is part). That is possible, but that is not the question. “The question is whether the interpretation is binding and can actually require assent.”

Why is a correct interpretation insufficient? Why do you need something over and above a correct interpretation for that interpretation to be binding or constrain our consent?

Isn’t truth sufficient to constrain assent? Shouldn’t you believe something simply because it’s true?

“If not, then there will be no interpretation and hence nothing in any confession that is beyond revision.”

Why would a correct interpretation be subject to revision? Is truth revisable?

Or is Perry attempting to say that a correct interpretation would still be subject to revision inasmuch as someone might fail to recognize the right interpretation? Mistake the right interpretation for the wrong one, and vice versa?

But short of rendering every individual believer infallible, the possibility of misinterpretation is unavoidable. Perry’s rule of faith does nothing to preclude the possibility of misjudgment.

“This is why I focused on the council in Acts 15. Was that infallible or no? If so, then it significantly undermines SS.”

How would the infallibility of that “council” undermine sola Scriptura? During the apostolic age, the spoken word of an Apostle was authoritative.

But we’re not living in the apostolic age. All we have to go by are inspired written words, not inspired spoken words.


  1. One small correction. Your comment was held not because of its length, but because of the links therein. Any comment that has 3 or more links in it is automatically held by the Akismet Spam filter. I rescued the comment out of the filter, and it is now on the blog in the combox.

  2. Hi, Lane.

    My comment was directed at Patton's blog (P&P), not yours. I've never had any difficulties at your blog. You're a merchant of theological excellence!

  3. Thanks Steve for showing the complete comment here on your blog. I was rather curious as to the end of your post.

  4. Steve Hays wrote:

    "Rather, he begins with his preconception of the way things ought to be....Why should we try to be more certain about something than God has given us cause to be certain about? If God, in his wisdom, has disclosed more of his mind on some things than others, then shouldn’t we calibrate our beliefs accordingly? Degrees of belief commensurate with degrees of revelation?"

    Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox often appeal to the larger amount of clarification their system of authority has produced on some issues or their system's potential to offer further clarification where it hasn't yet been provided. But a cult could offer clarification on even more issues and have even more potential for further clarification. Why wait for something like an infallible papal decree or ecumenical council when a cult leader you meet with every week can produce infallible pronouncements more easily and more often? Or why not go even further by asserting the infallibility of the individual on every subject? Whatever you decide to eat for breakfast, whoever you decide to marry, whatever you believe about God, you're infallible in every judgment you make. That would clarify a lot. That would be easier than the uncertainties and complexities involved with ecumenical councils, papal decrees, etc. Look at all of the disunity among Roman Catholics. And all of the unsettled theological disputes among Eastern Orthodox. Surely God has provided us with something better.

    The more knowledgeable Catholics and Orthodox will acknowledge that their appeals to practicality are inconclusive, and they'll claim that such appeals are only meant to supplement their more objective arguments. But there are practical advantages to Protestantism as well, yet we don't see Protestants placing nearly as much weight on such appeals to practicality. I would argue that the reason why we see such an inordinate emphasis on these arguments from practicality among Catholics and Orthodox is because those two systems are so lacking in valid arguments of a more objective nature. If they had evidence for papal decrees and ecumenical councils as good as or better than the evidence we have for scripture, they wouldn't be spending so much of their time discussing how disunited Protestants are or the practical benefits of an ecumenical council. It tells us something when a couple of groups that claim to be so grounded in history tend to spend so much time arguing from speculative philosophy and so little time arguing from history.

    "I think it much better, then, instead of running away from this ghost of tradition which Roman Catholic [and Eastern Orthodox] controversialists dress up to frighten us with, to walk up to it, and pull it to pieces, when it is found to be a mere bogey. You say that you have other evidence as to the teaching of our Lord and His Apostles as trustworthy as the Books of the New Testament. Well, produce your evidence, and let us see what it is worth. When the question is looked at in this way it will be found that the appeal to tradition by Roman Catholics means no more than this: that there are doctrines taught by the Church of Rome which, it must be acknowledged, cannot be found in Scripture, and which she is unwilling to own that she invented, or to pretend that they were made known to her by a new revelation. It remains, then, that she must have received them by tradition. But the baselessness of this pretence appears when we come to look into the testimony of antiquity with respect to each of the peculiar doctrines of Romanism." (George Salmon, The Infallibility of the Church [London, England: John Murray, 1914], p. 133)

  5. “Whatever you decide to eat for breakfast, whoever you decide to marry, whatever you believe about God, you're infallible in every judgment you make.”

    Incidentally, the choice of a spouse can have a profound effect, for better or worse, on one’s spiritual progress or regress. That’s why you have all those OT admonitions against marrying foreign (i.e. pagan) wives.

    So, if we were to employ the pragmatic, aprioristic reasoning of the Catholic or Orthodox apologist, then we’d expect God to give us specific guidance in the choice of a spouse.

    So why don’t Catholic or Orthodox apologists argue for that as well? Because their respective denomination makes no such claim, and because, if it did, such a claim would be patently false.

    Yet this represents an artificial restriction on their pragmatic, aprioristic methodology.

  6. It would seem to be self evident for people biblically literate that there must have been an apostolic intent for whether children were to be baptised.

    But this hardly needs to be proven to protestants since we can walk down the street and see "baptist" churches who won't baptise children, and non-baptist churches stridently preaching to baptise them.

    So why should we assume that, to answer Steve's question? Uh, because it is self evident to apparently everyone except Steve that God has an intent one way or the other.

  7. Keep in mind that I'm responding to Perry Robinson's rule of faith. If you base your theology on what you deem to be self-evident truths, then you can dispense with Holy Tradition and Ecumenical councils.