Saturday, December 4, 2010

Another reason why sola scriptura is bad doctrine

Let's pretend that you're watching TV. (Not too hard, since you're already staring at a monitor.) On the screen are the usual between-acts interruptions of narrative flow known as "commercials". One of them is a trailer for Schmuckatelli's Rules,[1] a recent release from Blowhard Pictures, which trumpets the presumed endorsement from Roger Ebert: "A FINE MOVIE … I WOULD RECOMMEND THAT EVERYONE SEE IT".

Intrigued, you find your way to Ebert's review in the Chicago Sun-Times, where you read: "Schmuckatelli's Rules is a fine movie, except for the dialogue, the story, the acting, the cinematography and the editing. I would recommend that everyone see it, except that I can't think of a reason even to watch the trailers." Congratulations! You've just discovered a fallacy of quotation out of context!

The most immediately visible problem with "proof texts" from Scripture is that, so often, they're isolated not only from the passages in which they occur but also from the rest of Scripture. In "The meaning of tradition", for an example, we saw that Jesus' words in Matthew 15:1-9 and St. Paul's words in Colossians 2:8 aren't sufficient to carry the weight of a general indictment of tradition precisely because they aren't the sole references to tradition one can find in the Bible; we can find other passages in which tradition is not only mentioned in a positive light but even used as a tool in the apostles' toolbox.

This tendency in Evangelical apologetics, however, is part of a larger problem in which Christianity is wrongly viewed as "based" on Scripture. In fairness, many Catholics—who ought to know better—are prone to this error as well as Protestants and non-Christians. If this is a source of theological divisions within Christendom, then we can hardly wonder when non-Christians, particularly atheists and agnostics, are vulnerable to it as well. It then becomes an indictment of how the Christian story is taught, not only within the four walls of the church but in the public square.

Consider a series of advertisements appearing in the Washington, DC area:


Now, it's very easy to miss the intended point of these extracts, even though they're classic examples of the out-of-context fallacy. We hold it as a point of faith that the Bible contains the inspired Word of God (cf. Jn 20:31; 2 Tim 3:16; 2 Pet 1:19-21, 3:15-16), that it reveals His Will and Design in the manner He intended (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church 104-107). At the very least, then, we should be uncomfortable when it appears to tell us that God commanded the Jews to commit genocide and kill practicing homosexuals, that Jesus promoted hatred of family, and that St. Paul endorsed the subjugation of women.
We can try to put these examples back into historical and literary context: God was making a local, limited commandment to a tribe of pastoral nomads fighting for survival in a much tougher social environment; Jesus was engaging in rabbinic exaggeration; St. Paul was treating a matter of internal discipline and not espousing a point of faith. But then, are we really explaining them or just rationalizing them? What, then, is the difference here between explaining and explaining away?
Let me be clear here: by no means am I advocating that we abandon the God-inspired nature of Scripture as dogma, especially not out of discomfort or any "superior" sense of morality. After all, the ethos from which we view such things as uncomfortable or horrifying did not arise from secular humanism but from Judeo-Christian humanism; atheism doesn't—and can't—give grounds for any moral imperative beyond the need for individual survival. Humanists may claim to be "committed to treating each person as having inherent worth and dignity," but that point of faith can't be derived from scientific facts, especially when viewed from the perspective of materialist reductionism.[2]
My point here is that the atheist attack on Scripture wouldn't be nearly as effective if individual Christians didn't treat Scripture as the beginning, middle and end of Christianity. My point here is that the statement "Scripture is the inspired Word of God," taken without qualification or explanation, can be misleading even to the well-educated believer, let alone the most intellectually lazy New Atheist. If the ads above deliberately distort our religion, it's fair to say that we set ourselves up for it.
The ingenuity of the ads is that, by saying "Some believe", they avoid falsely attributing each sentiment to the whole of a particular religion while: 1) putting believers on the hot seat for the uncomfortable content of their Scriptures, and 2) taking advantage of the existence of fringe sects who do, in fact, hold such uncomfortable sentiments as points of faith, making secular humanism look morally credible. After all, saying "some believe" that gays and lesbians should be put to death would be an incredible affront … if it weren't for that nutjob Fred Phelps and his congregation/family of homophobic[3] loons. All Phelps knows is that the Bible is the Word of God; that, as far as he's concerned, is all he needs to know. And all the humanists need to know is that Christendom includes borderline psychotics like Phelps, even if the vast bulk of Christendom doesn't embrace them, doesn't want to acknowledge them, and would gladly kick them to the curb if we could.
But here some one perhaps will ask, Since the canon of Scripture is complete, and sufficient of itself for everything, and more than sufficient, what need is there to join with it the authority of the Church's interpretation? For this reason—because, owing to the depth of Holy Scripture, all do not accept it in one and the same sense, but one understands its words in one way, another in another; so that it seems to be capable of as many interpretations as there are interpreters. … Therefore, it is very necessary, on account of so great intricacies of such various error, that the rule for the right understanding of the prophets and apostles should be framed in accordance with the standard of Ecclesiastical and Catholic interpretation.

Moreover, in the Catholic Church itself, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all. For that is truly and in the strictest sense "Catholic" which, as the name itself and the reason of the thing declare, comprehends all universally. This rule we shall observe if we follow universality, antiquity, consent. We shall follow universality if we confess that one faith to be true, which the whole Church throughout the world confesses; antiquity, if we in no wise depart from those interpretations which it is manifest were notoriously held by our holy ancestors and fathers; consent, in like manner, if in antiquity itself we adhere to the consentient definitions and determinations of all, or at the least of almost all priests and doctors (St. Vincent of Lérins, Commonitory 2:5-6).
Saint Vincent, writing in the fifth century, may very well have been speaking to us today. Notice that he doesn't quite endorse the material sufficiency of Scripture, but merely postulates that someone would hold that view, which he counters by saying that Scripture is formally insufficient for learning the Faith. Neither did St. Paul say that Scripture was sufficient; he only said, in 2 Timothy 3:16, that it's "useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness".[4] But it's only useful when in the hands of someone already educated in the faith who is teaching others; in the hands of the untutored, it can—and usually does—lead to error.

But Saint Vincent also pays us the dividend of illustrating why the advertisements fail, why they're such a wild and willful misrepresentation of Christian belief. Christianity isn't to be found in mindlessly literal readings of cherry-picked Scriptural proof texts but in the creedal statements, the doctrines and dogmas of the historical Church. Nor is Christianity to be found in idiosyncratic private interpretations, in the small tributaries and creeks, but in the great main river of commonly-held points of faith.

In the end, it's not Scripture that St. Paul called "the pillar and foundation of the truth" but the Church itself (1 Tim 3:15). The last five hundred years have irrefutably shown us that the doctrine of sola scriptura leads not to Christian truth but towards degradation of the truth, not towards unity of faith but towards division and scandal. It's a truly bad, truly dangerous doctrine which ought to be abandoned for the sake of Christ.

And that should be the take-away from's ads.

[1] Thank you, Steve Bross (my high-school debate coach), who created the name "Joe Schmuckatelli"!
[2] It's also ironic that this commitment, for many humanists, doesn't exclude abortion on demand or euthanasia.
[3] This neologism, as popular as it is, is still imprecise and exasperating. If we must use a Greek tag to describe the fear of homosexuality, why not arsenokoitophobia? Probably because it's too long, he sighed.
[4] Gr. ōphelimos: profitable, advantageous, helpful, serviceable.