Thursday, April 14, 2011

Apologetics toolbox: The sola scriptura problems (Part II)

Sola scriptura and the preacher’s authority

In Part I, we saw the contradiction at the heart of sola scriptura: If the Church isn’t infallible, then either the Holy Spirit has abandoned the Church in contradiction to Jesus’ promise to be with his Church “always, until the end of the age” (Mt 28:20), or the Holy Spirit’s guidance is unreliable. Either conclusion would contradict Scripture (and verge on blasphemy), so the Church must be considered infallible.

Doctor James R. White’s contention that sola scriptura doesn’t deny the role of the Holy Spirit in guiding the Church is questionable, to say the least. Equally dubious is his claim that the doctrine doesn’t deny the Church’s authority to teach God’s truth.

To say that the Church has authority is to say that it has expertise, permission and power. Nor is this authority self-aggrandized; it’s implicit in Jesus’ commission to “go forth and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Mt 28:19). The gospel is to be taught, and the student is not equal in knowledge to the teacher.

White himself says:

The individual priesthood of the believer does not mean there is no Church. It does not mean there are no pastors and teachers. It does not mean we are not to learn from one another, learn from the great Christians of the past, or “start from scratch” with every new generation. The doctrine does not do away with the … authority of elders to teach and train, nor does it give license to anybody and everybody to go out and start some new movement based on their own “take” on things. While this may happen, it is an abuse of the doctrine, not an application of it.[1]

If this is true, then by what authority can Rev. Joe Schmuckatelli challenge Bishop Moroni’s interpretation of Matthew 16:17-19, especially if that interpretation is backed by the early Church Fathers and generations of influential churchmen?  Doctor White’s caveat, on face value, undermines the validity of the whole Protestant movement!

Reverend Schmuckatelli may quickly and forcefully thunder, “The Bible is my authority!” And herein lies a trap, a trap he set himself: his interpretation of Scripture, by the very rule of sola scriptura, is no more infallible than Bp. Moroni’s. The same rule that gave him heckler’s rights over Bp. Moroni’s combination of Scripture and apostolic tradition gives everybody else heckler’s rights over his hermeneutics.

Well, Joe Schmuckatelli can try again by saying, “The Spirit moves me to believe that my interpretation is the right one.” But if the Holy Spirit’s guidance doesn’t give the Church reliability, how can it give that reliability to a lone individual? The Trinitarian and the Modalist each claim to be moved by the Spirit; which is telling the truth, and which is simply deceiving himself?

When one looks at the fragmentation of Western Christianity, the problem is at its worst among churches and evangelists who claim the Bible as their sole infallible authority. Ironically, many of them will insist, “Scripture speaks clearly,” just as Martin Luther claimed that “Scripture is its own interpreter”.[2] To date, however, no one has done a thorough, persuasive job of squaring the “self-interpreting Bible” with the doctrinal confusion in Protestant Christianity: the reality testifies against the theory.

By assigning trustworthiness to Scripture alone, the advocate of sola scriptura implicitly impeaches his own reliability. Doctor White tells me not to trust the Pope’s interpretation of Matthew 16:17-19 because Benedict XVI is a human being and therefore prone to error; why then should I trust Dr. White’s contrary interpretation? I have at least some very persuasive historical reasons to believe that Benedict is part of the original Church in which Jesus invested authority; all I have from Dr. White is his doctorate. I see over 40,000 claimants to the label of “True Church”, but I have no reason to place my trust in any of them precisely because sola scriptura tells me none of them are infallible.

In fact, Dr. White’s claim that sola scriptura doesn’t question the Church’s teaching magisterium is disingenuous. Martin Luther adopted this doctrine precisely so he could appeal to Scripture from the Church as a litigant appeals to the Supreme Court from a lower court. He created sola scriptura just so he could say, “My ‘take’ on Scripture tells me your traditions are un-biblical, and therefore don’t bind me in conscience.”

Infallibility is not only a valid deduction from the Holy Spirit’s guidance, it’s also a necessary precondition for the preaching of the gospel message. While it’s the individual’s obligation to ask questions and seek explanations in order to learn the faith, it’s equally the obligation of the elder, the teacher and the pastor to teach the faith as Christ and the apostles taught it—not a close approximation, not their best guess, and most certainly not their own “take”. So the evangelist can’t say, “If I’m wrong and you believe me, that’s your problem, not mine.”

In sum:
  • Sola scriptura strips authority from the Catholic bishop without granting it to the Protestant minister or theologian: both are equally open to the heckler.

[1] White, The Roman Catholic Controversy (1996), pp. 52-3.
[2] Commentaries on the Psalms, cit. in Ray (1997), p. 45 n. 62.