Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Sola scriptura before Gutenberg

In this post I'm responding to a stock Catholic objection to sola scriptura, to wit: you couldn't have sola scriptura before the printing press (or the completion of the canon). I'm going to discuss the issue from both hypothetical and practical angles. There will be a bit of repetition in this post. For sake of completeness, I've collating various things I said on the subject–a few of which I've posted before–but much of this will also be new. 

I. The Catholic alternative

A basic problem with the Catholic objection is that if it's valid against the Protestant rule of valid, then it's valid against the Catholic rule of faith inasmuch as you can create parallel objections to the Catholic rule of faith, based on the same principle. For instance:

i) Before the invention of the printing press, there were no mass copies of papal encyclicals, conciliar proceedings, Scholastic theologians, or church fathers. 

So the Catholic alternative is no more or less dependent on the printing press than the Protestant rule of faith. The church of Rome also disseminates its dogmas in writing. 

ii) A basic problem with claiming that sola scriptura couldn't be the rule of faith because the complete canon of Scripture didn't exist in the 1C, or because every Christian didn't own a private copy of the Bible, is that a parallel objection applies to the Catholic alternative. 

The papacy, in its present form, didn't exist in the 1C, or early centuries of church history. Indeed, the papacy has undergone continuous internal development.

Consider medieval conciliarism. Consider ultramontanism. 

The relationship between the papacy and the episcopate was still a matter of heated debate during Vatican II. And "collegiality" continues to be debated in post-Vatican II theology. 

If you're going to say sola scriptura can't be true because the canon didn't exist or wasn't accessible in the first century or first few centuries of the church, the very same logic applies, perforce, to the Catholic rule of faith. 

II. What's the underlying principle of sola scriptura?

i) There's an obvious sense in which you didn't have sola scriptura during the era of public revelation. Protestants grant that. That's not inconsistent with the Protestant rule of faith. We're not living in OT times or NT times. 

ii) There's a certain equivocation concerning whether or not sola scriptura was operative in the OT or NT era. 

What was always operative was the primacy of divine revelation. Moreover, sola scriptura was operative during the Intertestamental period. 

The principle of sola scriptura was always operative inasmuch as the principle of sola scriptura is the primacy of divine revelation. The primatial authority of revelation is constant common denominator. 

During the period of public revelation, you had prophets and apostles who spoke (as well as wrote) the word of God. But revelation, in that sense, is now confined to past revelation, committed to writing. 

III. Limiting cases

Now I'm going to consider some hypothetical limiting cases. This is an argument from the greater to the lesser, as well as an argument from principle. If, in principle, sola scriptura is feasible even under these conditions, then it's feasible under less extreme conditions. For instance:

i) Take a Fahrenheit 451 scenario. Suppose ownership of Bibles was punishable by death. Not only you, but every family member–as a deterrent. 

Suppose a Protestant community evades the ban by memorizing the Bible. Different members commit different books of Scripture to memory–before they destroy their copies to avoid detection. As a matter of principle, that community is still governed by sola Scriptura, even though it has no physical copies of Scripture.

The content of a book can be orally transmitted. Many people can memorize the same copy. A one-to-many relation. 

Indeed, that's more than hypothetical. You have people like Alec McCowen and Max McLean who do that sort of thing. 

That's different from oral history or oral tradition, where it's word-of-mouth all the way. By contrast, this is controlled tradition, because it has a written frame of reference. One can double-check memory against the exemplar. The standard exists. 

ii) Now let's use an argument from analogy, in response to the objection that until copies of Scripture were readily available to the laity, it's not a workable principle. Let's take a comparison. This will be a limiting case, where I'm arguing from the greater to the lesser.

We don't have the original letters of Paul. By that I mean, we don't have the autographa. What we have are copies. Copies of copies.

The traditional aim of textual criticism is to retroengineer the urtext from our extant copies. By comparing and contrasting Greek MSS, by taking into account the types of mistakes which scribes make when they copy a text, we product a critical edition that approximates the original.

Even though the original no longer exists, the original is still the standard. That's the ideal in reference to which textual criticism proceeds. Because there was an original, that's the standard of comparison. That's the frame of reference in relation to which we retrace the process of transcription to arrive at the original wording. Even though the autographa are nonexistent, they remain the standard which is guiding the textual critic. That's the target. 

Now, that's an extreme example. In the case of sola scriptura, Scripture exists. Copies of Scripture were always obtainable for some Jews and Christians. Moreover, Scripture was generally accessible via the public reading of Scripture. You didn't have to read it for yourself to hear it read aloud.

Now, if a nonexistent standard (i.e. the autographa) can still be a functional standard, then in the lesser case of an extant standard (Scripture), sola scriptura can be a functional standard even in situations where availability is limited.

IV. Reciting Scripture

Now let's shift from the principle of sola scriptura to the actual dissemination of Scripture before the printing press. Individual Jews and Christians didn't need to own private copies of the Bible to know the Bible. That's because a written text can be disseminated orally. Scripture was available to the masses vis the public reading of Scripture. 

This could also be communicated by word-of-mouth. For instance, Timothy began learning the Bible at the knee of his Jewish mother and grandmother. Either they read Scripture to him, told him Bible stories, or both. 

Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it in the hearing of the people. And they said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient (Exod 24:7).  
when all Israel comes to appear before the Lord your God at the place that he will choose, you shall read this law before all Israel in their hearing (Deut 31:11). 
There was not a word of all that Moses commanded that Joshua did not read before all the assembly of Israel, and the women, and the little ones, and the sojourners who lived among them (Josh 8:35). 
And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand. And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law (Neh 8:3). 
Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him…Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless? (Mt 12:3,5). 
Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female (Mt 19:4). 
Have you never read, “‘Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise’?” (Mt 21:16). 
Have you never read in the Scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord's doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’? (Mt 21:42). 
Have you not read what was said to you by God (Mt 22:31). 
So when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand) (Mt 24:15). 
And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read (Lk 4:16). 
After the reading from the Law and the Prophets, the rulers of the synagogue sent a message to them, saying, “Brothers, if you have any word of encouragement for the people, say it” (Acts 13:15). 
For those who live in Jerusalem and their rulers, because they did not recognize him nor understand the utterances of the prophets, which are read every Sabbath, fulfilled them by condemning him (Acts 13:27). 
For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues. (Acts 15:21). 
And when this letter has been read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you also read the letter from Laodicea (Col 4:16). 
I put you under oath before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers (1 Thes 5:27). 
I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, dwells in you as well 2 Tim 1:5).
and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings (2 Tim 3:15).
Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture (1 Tim 4:13). 
Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near (Rev 1:3).  
And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things, Justin Martyr, First Apology, 67. 

V. Early Christian publication and distribution

Finally, let's consider how Scripture was copied, published, distributed in the early church:

The letters of Paul to his communities, the earliest extant Christian texts, were dictated to scribal associates (presumably Christian), carried to their destinations by a traveling Christian, and read aloud to the congregations. But Paul also envisioned the circulation of some of his letters beyond a single Christian group (cf. Gal 1:2, "to the churches of Galatia," Rom 1:7 "to all God's beloved in Rome"–dispersed among numerous discrete house churches, Rom 16:5,10,11,14,15), and the author of Colossians, if not Paul, gives instruction for the exchange of Paul's letters between different communities (Col 4:16)… 
To take another case, the Apocalypse, addressed to seven churches in western Asia Minor, was almost surely sent in separate copy to each. Even so, the author anticipated its wider copying and dissemination beyond those original recipients, and so warned subsequent copyists to preserve the integrity of the book, neither adding nor subtracting, for fear of religious penalty (Rev 22:18-19). The private Christian copying and circulation that is presumed in these early writings continued to be the means for the publication and dissemination of Christian literature in the second and third centuries.  
It can also been seen when Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, had the letters of Ignatius copied and sent to the Christian community in Philippi, and had copies of letters from them and other churches in Asia Minor sent to Syrian Antioch (Phil 13). it is evident too in the scribal colophons of the Martyrdom of Polycarp (22:2-4)… 
From another angle, the physical remains of early Christian books show that they were produced and disseminated privately within and between Christian communities. Early Christian texts, especially those of a scriptural sort, were almost always written in codices or leaf books–an informal, economical, and handy format–rather than on rolls, which were the traditional and standard vehicle for all other books. Also distinctive to Christian books was the pervasive use of nomina sacra, divine names written in abbreviated forms, which was clearly an in-house practice of Christian scribes. Further, the preponderance in early Christian papyrus manuscripts of an informal quasi-documentary script rather than a professional bookhand also suggests that Christian writings were privately transcribed with a view to intramural circulation and use. 
It deserves notice that some early Christian texts appear to have enjoyed surprisingly rapid and wide circulation. Already by the early decades of the second century Papias of Hierapolis in western Asia Minor was acquainted at least with the Gospels of Mark and Matthew (Eusebius, H.E. 3.39.15-16); Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, and Polycarp of Smyrna were all acquainted with collections of Paul's letters; and papyrus copies of various early Christian texts were current in Egypt. 
The brisk and broad dissemination of Christian books presumes not only a lively interest in texts among Christian communities but also efficient means for their reproduction and distribution…Books were nevertheless important to them virtually from the beginning, for even before Christians began to compose their own texts, books of Jewish scripture played an indispensable role in their worship, teaching, and missionary preaching.  
…larger Christian centers must have had some scriptorial capacity…Absent such reliable intra-Christian means for the production of books, the range of texts known and used by Christian communities across the Mediterranean basin by the end of the second century would be without explanation.  
Just as the missionary proliferation of text-oriented Christian communities during the second and third centuries provided ample incentive to the production and copying of Christian books, the close relationships and frequent contacts that were cultivated between those communities provided efficient means for their dissemination. This circumstance hastened and broadened the circulation of early Christian literature, giving it a vitality and reach that seem extraordinary for books moving through private networks. Harry Gamble, "The Book Trade in the Roman Empire," Charles Hill & Michael Kruger, eds. The Early Text of the New Testament (Oxford, 2012), 32-35. 

1 comment: