Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Apologetics toolbox: The sola scriptura problems (Part V)


Formal sufficiency of Scripture

In Part I, we saw how the basic premise of sola scriptura (only Scripture is infallible) must implicitly contradict Scriptural promises of either the Holy Spirit's guidance or the Holy Spirit's reliability to be true. In Part II, we saw how sola scriptura effectively and logically denies anyone the authority of the Spirit, including the Protestant defender of sola scriptura.

Part III addressed the question of human authority as it affects the composition of Scripture. And in Part IV we looked at the Scriptural citations common to defenses of sola scriptura, and found that you can’t prove the material sufficiency of sola scriptura from them. Ironically, sola scriptura fails the “Show me in the Bible where it says” test.

Let’s be clear on the point: To say it’s not materially sufficient isn’t to say that it doesn’t have a lot. Certainly Jesus, the apostles and the Church Fathers got a lot of mileage out of the Bible, and it’s still the most important resource of the Church today. Nothing that the Church has ever said about sacred tradition or the magisterium of the Church contradicts Scripture’s God-inspired nature; in fact, the Catholic and Orthodox Churches were the first to uphold it.

But no one said getting a lot out of Scripture means you can get everything out of Scripture that you need.


David B. Currie, a convert to Catholicism who was educated at the prestigious Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, first began to question sola scriptura in this manner:

… I set a goal for myself of reading the entire Bible through in a year. I chose the [New International Version] because I had not done much reading in that version up to that time. As I read the Old Testament, I was struck by several major issues. The most revolutionary for me was that I saw that no one could have established or maintained Judaism in the way God desired from the data found only in the Bible. There were too many holes and gaps: so much was assumed. I saw that a tremendous amount of what was involved in being a God-pleasing Israelite must have been passed down in an oral instruction (tradition). You want just one example? Try to reconstruct the process of offering a sin offering from the Old Testament alone. You can’t get to first base![1]

What Currie had run up against was the “occasional nature” of the Bible. That is, the separate books and letters of the Bible were written to meet specific occasions, or needs, and not with a single (human) end. To those ends, there are histories, biographies, parables, religious songs, compendiums of folk wisdom, letters and prophecies and apocalyptic literature … but no formal listing of beliefs, disciplines or rites of worship.

The holes and gaps Currie encountered were inevitable because the writers saw no need to cover everything in order to make their points. For example, St. Paul covers a lot of ground in his letters to the Corinthians, but he never addresses the point of whether St. Peter was the leader of the apostles. And why should he have? It wasn’t an issue at the time.

In fact, sola scriptura trades on an unspoken, common assumption that, like today, most people read. On the contrary: outside of the Jewish communities, most scholars believe that 80-90% of the people in the Roman Empire were functionally illiterate. Most Christians learned the faith through symbols, the liturgy and through rote memorization—oral tradition.

We have evidence in Scripture that the apostles expected people to learn through oral tradition, and gave it no less weight than Scripture. Saint Paul tells the Corinthians, “I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the traditions just as I passed them on to you” (1 Cor 11:2 NIV), and the Thessalonians, “So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the [paradoseis][2] we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter” (2 Thess 2:15 NIV).  And to the Romans:

But how are men to call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher? And how can men preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news” [Is 52:7]! But they have not all heeded the gospel; for Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us” [Is 51:1]? So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes from the preaching of Christ (Rom 10:14-17).

The faith was never intended to be passed on through Scripture alone. In fact, for that purpose Scripture is formally insufficient.

Let’s say you want to build a house. So you buy a plot of land and dump lumber, nails, bricks, mortar, concrete and all the other supplies necessary on it. Those supplies can sit there from that moment on to eternity; however, you won’t actually have a house until you put the stuff together in the right order.

That’s what we mean by formal insufficiency: whether or not Scripture has all the stuff you need to believe, it’s not put together to teach you the faith as the apostles believed it. Or as St. Vincent of Lérins put it about the year 434:

But here someone 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. For Novatian expounds it one way, Sabellius another, Donatus another, Arius, Eunomius, Macedonius, another, Photinus, Apollinaris, Priscillian, another, Iovinian, Pelagius, Celestius, another, lastly, Nestorius another. 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 [Church] interpretation (Commonitory 5).

Put differently, St. Vincent argues that, even if we grant material sufficiency, Scriptures aren’t formally sufficient to act as the regula fidei without the guidance of the Church and its tradition. And to back up his position, he names thirteen heretics of the third and fourth centuries who had gone astray without that authoritative tradition, naming first the anti-pope Novatian, of whom St. Cyprian of Carthage snarled: “… [N]or can he be reckoned as a bishop, who, succeeding to no one, and despising the evangelical and apostolic tradition, sprang from himself. For he who has not been ordained in the Church can neither have nor hold to the Church in any way” (Letters 75:3).


The Church Fathers accepted oral tradition to be as authoritative as Scripture. Saint John Chrysostom, commenting on the passage in 2 Thessalonians, says, “Hence it is manifest, that they did not deliver all things by epistle, but many things also unwritten, and in like manner both the one and the other are worthy of credit. Therefore let us think the tradition of the Church also worthy of credit. It is a tradition, seek no farther” (Homilies on Second Thessalonians 4). And Saint Basil the Great observes, “For were we to attempt to reject such customs as have no written authority … we should unintentionally injure the Gospel in its very vitals; or, rather, should make our public definition a mere phrase and nothing more” (On the Holy Spirit 27:66).

But didn’t Jesus reject tradition? That answer will be the subject of the last installment.

In sum:

  • Scripture itself assumes information passed to the faithful through oral tradition; because of its occasional nature, Scripture is formally insufficient to act as sole regula fidei.




[1] Currie, Born Fundamentalist, Born Again Catholic (1996), pp. 51-2.
[2] NIV tries to escape the trap by translating paradoseis (nom. sing. paradosis) as “teachings”, yet is willing to write “tradition” for paradosin in Matthew 15:2 … where it serves Protestant purposes.

1 comment:

  1. Tony, thank you very much for this series. I'm looking forward to reading all of it in its entirety once you finish it up. I've found there are not enough thoughtful resources out there to help make a compelling argument against Sola Scriptura without resorting to intellectual dishonesty or standard talking points that lack substantive support.

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