11 February 2004

Smug Catholics and Sola Scriptura

Strolling through Fallowfield with Marlisa and Ben this afternoon I brought up the issue of the erratic organist at Sunday's mass. Ben asked which church I had attended, and on hearing that it was St Augustine's asked whether that was the ugly building by the BBC. I conceded that it was, though the building was not so bad as he made out; in any case, it served its purpose very well. Ben muttered something about it being a hideous building; he is something of an authority on English churches, having studied in Durham and sung in far too many Cathedrals.

At this I grinned and said I couldn't see what he was acting so cocky about; there isn't a decent looking church in Britain that hadn't originally been a Catholic one. The Anglicans hadn't managed to build so much as one beautiful church.

'Typical bloody Catholics!' he retorted, 'You're all so bloody smug! Hugo's the same!'
I disagreed; Hugo, an Anglo-Austrian in our hall, goes too far, I feel, in seeming rather embittered about the Second Vatican Council. I really don't understand Catholics who are still hung up on that.

Nevertheless, I could see where Ben was coming from. There's a passage in Chesterton's The Thing, where G.K. observes that 'The great temptation of the Catholic in the modern world is the temptation to intellectual pride,' and despite Gilbert's insistence that we should resist this temptation, nevertheless it is one that one succumbs too all too readily in my experience.

While Chesterton discussed this attitude with a gentle and rueful smile, James Joyce conveyed it in a thoroughly scathing fashion. One episode in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man has Stephen Dedalus talking to his university friend Cranly:
' - Then, said Cranly, you do not intend to become a protestant?
- I said that I had lost the faith, Stephen answered, but not that I had lost selfrespect. What kind of liberation would that be to forsake an absurdity which is logical and coherent and to embrace one which is illogical and incoherent?'

While Stephen makes his comment in an offhand and offensive manner, I can't help feeling that he's making a valid point, nevertheless.

Scripture Alone
I have enormous issues with the doctrine of sola scriptura, which has been a central tenet of Protestantism from Luther's time on; Calvin expounds the doctrine very clearly. Simply put, sola scriptura is the belief that the Bible is the sole standard for Christian faith and life. As the other core principles of the various Protestant churches are logically dependent on this doctrine, it can reasonably be seen as the central belief of Protestantism.

Creation of the Canon
The Church flourished for quite a while before the Bible existed; yet how could it have done so without being corrupted if the Bible was the only authoritative source of Christian self-knowledge?

The most basic problem with this is that there was no clear Bible until the late fourth century; in fact, it was not until 367 that Athanasius of Alexandria listed all the books of the New Testament, with his list being widely accepted and then approved by several Church synods.

Admittedly, the approval of this list was in effect an acknowledgement of those texts which were generally treated as scriptures by the various Christian churches, but it had taken a long time for a common unofficial canon to be established.

The first Christians lacked any New Testament scriptures; Paul wrote his letters - or most of them anyway - to give pastoral guidance to young churches where the word of God had already been spread orally, which was how the Gospel was initially transmitted. One by one other letters were written to advise young churches who were experiencing problems, and Gospels were composed, each with a particular audience in mind. In fact, it appears that every book of the Bible was written for people who were Christians already; none looks like a text designed to convert nonbelievers. In no way can the New Testament writings be seen as an attempt to pass on a large body of doctrine; many doctrines of the Church can be proven from scripture but such doctrines are generally implicit in the text rather than clearly spelled out.

It took a while for these writings to gain primacy in the Church; Christian writers at the start of the second century tended to rely on oral traditions as much as the Gospels, but within half a century quotations from the Gospels dominated the writings of the Church fathers, with the Pauline corpus being increasingly referred to also.

The second half of the second century saw the beginnings of the real debate over what was to become the Bible; Marcion, the first to attempt to compile a canon, only deemed the Gospel of Luke and ten Pauline letters to be acceptable; this left out much of the New Testament and all of the Old Testament . Marcion's list effectively started the attempt to establish a clear canon for the Church, and the debate continued throughout the third and fourth centuries; in 382 Pope Damasus I listed the twenty-seven books of the New Testament and the forty-six books of the Old. This list was confirmed by several Church councils.

The Point Being?
Ronald Knox makes a good point on this issue: '... the Protestant had no conceivable right to base any arguments on the inspiration of the Bible, for the inspiration of the Bible was a doctrine which had been believed, before the Reformation, on the mere authority of the Church . . . Protestantism [...] repudiated the authority of the Church; and then, without a shred of logic calmly went on believing in the inspiration of the Bible, as if nothing had happened! Did they suppose that Biblical inspiration was a self-evident fact, like the axioms of Euclid? Or did they derive it from some words of our Lord? If so, what words? What authority have we, apart from that of the Church, to say that the Epistles of Paul are inspired, and the Epistle of Barnabas is not?'

Knox is articulating an important point here: he's not denying the divine inspiration of the Bible; on the contrary, he is affirming it, but stressing that the only sensible reason to believe the Bible inspired is the authority of the Church. After all, what evidence is there within the New Testament that the New Testament is inspired? Revelations was written at the direct iinstruction of Jesus, according to its author, but no other book makes such a claim. None of the other books explicitly claim divine inspiration, and the Bible itself does not provide a list of divinely inspired books. Even had it done so one would be inclined to doubt such a claim; after all, anybody can lie. (The Koran claims divine inspiration, as does The Book of Mormon, but they're hardly candidates for inclusion in the Bible.) So if the books of the Bible can not be trusted purely on their own merits, why then should they be trusted? Augustine put it well when he said that he 'would not believe in the Gospels were it not for the authority of the Catholic Church?'

Leaving Stuff Out
If fanciful notions of the Bible having dropped fully-formed from Heaven are discarded, the only plausible argument in favour of the Bible being inspired but not a creation of the Church is to claim that the early Christians were inspired by the Holy Spirit in their acceptance of the canonical books, and that the bishops, Popes, and councils that drew up the canon were also inspired. Fair enough, and this is surely what Catholics would say; that the Holy Spirit had guided the Church in drawing up the Canon. But while the Catholic position is coherent in this regard, the Protestant one isn't; why would the Holy Spirit have guided the early Church in its assembly of the Canon but allowed it to go astray in believing in such doctrines as the Real Presence in the Eucharist and that Mary should be honoured?

Such doctrines were, after all, believed by the early Church and restated at the Councils of Hippo and Carthage, the Councils that supported the canon as listed by the Decree of Damasus. How can this inconsistency be justified? What's more, those councils also confirmed the Old Testament as the full forty-six books, yet Protestant Bibles include, as a rule, only thirty-nine Old Testament books...

I still can't understand why these books - Baruch, Judith, Tobit, Sirach, Wisdom, 1 Maccabees, and 2 Maccabees - are left out of Protestant Bibles. The claim, sometimes advanced, that Luther deemed them inauthenthic as they supported such doctrines as that of Purgatory, strikes me as not very credible; Luther's faith was genuine and such cynical manipulation of Scripture would be rather out of character. The more plausible and generally accepted reason, on the other hand, seems completely irrational.

By the first century, at the time the New Testament was being composed, it seems that Hebrew was no longer the normal language of the Jews in their homeland; even in the synagogues the scriptures had to be read either by using Targums, which were paraphrases into Aramaic, or by using the Septuagint. The Septuagint was a translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek, and had been carried out in Egypt in the third century BC. It was the main source of scripture for Hellenized Jews, something which can be demonstrated by any textual survey of the New Testament; whenever Jewish scriptures are referred to or quoted the version cited is almost always from the Septuagint.

So? Well, following the fall of the Temple in 70AD, and the subsequent rise of the Pharisees who had always disdained the Septuagint, a council was held at Jamnia at the end of the century, largely in an attempt to clearly define Judaism and by doing so counter the rise of Christianity. The Jews decided to establish new clear criteria for their Bible, and decided that several books of the Septuagint were not really divinely inspired. Henceforth the seven books listed above were not to be treated as divine Scriptures. Because of this Pharisean decision their presence within the Christian Canon was debated over the centuries, and during the sixteenth century they were excluded from Protestant Bibles.

But why? This doesn't make sense. If the Holy Spirit had guided the Early Church in terms of what Scriptures it was to consider inspired, then either the forty-six books of the Septuagint were divinely inspired, or else the Spirit misled the early Christians, Athanasius of Alexandria, Pope Damasus I, and all the bishops in the councils that formalised the Canon; is that really likely? Furthermore, what authority should a Jewish council have had over Christianity, when the new religion had been growing independently for half a century, using the forty-six books of the Septuagint as its basic scriptures? And getting down to basics, whenever the Jewish Scriptures are referred to in the New Testament, the Christian writers almost always cite the Septuagint; in fact, on numerous occasions Paul and the other Christian writers actually quote or draw from the seven disputed books.

What's more, Jesus supposedly called the Pharisees 'blind guides', and warned that 'if a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit' (Matt 15.14). Why then did the Protestants of the sixteenth century chose to follow the Pharisees in discarding seven books from the Jewish Scriptures?

If the forty-six books of the Septuagint were good enough for the first Christians, why were they not good enough for the Protestant churches that have been founded over the last five centuries? Did the Holy Spirit speak more authoritatively through Luther and Calvin than through Paul and the Evangelists?

Er, yes, but what does it mean?
So far you can probably see why I'm puzzled. From the sixteenth century on, Protestants have claimed that the Bible is the sole rule of faith, yet such a belief has no historical basis, and scorns both the role of the Church in assembling the Bible, and the version of the Old Testament used by the authors of the New Testament. The doctrine of sola scriptura looks to have been based on a wholly inconsistent and self-contradictory set of premises.

The first one comes down to the issue of interpretation. Chesterton, in a fine short story called 'The Sign of the Broken Sword', has Father Brown ask 'When will people understand that it is useless for a man to read his Bible unless he also reads everybody else's Bible?

Chesterton has a really good point here. There are more than 20,000 Protestant denominations, all of them differing in varying ways, some subtle, some not so subtle. Almost all agree that the Bible is the sole infallible source of their religion. Yet they disagree on so many things. They can't all be right. Furthermore, if each Protestant interprets the Bible for himself, and if they admit to infallibility then they must admit that their interpretation is open to question. Besides, Jesus seems to have strongly implied that Christianity was not to be a private and individualistic faith: 'For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.' (Matt. 18.19)

The Bible isn't a simple document, and interpreting it properly is a very tricky business. It's not simply a matter of claiming that the Holy Spirit guides readers to the correct interpretation; if that were the case then the Church wouldn't have suffered schism in the eleventh century and innumerable heresies before and since. Nor is it the case to claim that Protestants agree on 'the important things'. Who is to decide what's important and what isn't? Where in the Bible are 'the important things' enumerated?

In fact the Bible goes so far as to make the point that the Scriptures can be pretty obscure, and in need of authoritative interpretation. If you take a look at Acts 8.26-40 there's a clear account of how an Ethiopian eunuch was thoroughly bamboozled by a passage from Isaiah, and needed to have it explained to him by St Philip, who proceeded to tell the Ethiopian about Jesus.

Furthermore, the Second Letter of Peter stresses that 'you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation,' (1.20) and that 'there are some things in them [Paul's letters] hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do to the other scriptures.' (3.16)

That makes complete sense; either the Scriptures have a definite meaning, or they do not. If they have a definite meaning, or indeed several such meanings, then surely we would need someone or something that could interpret them definitively. Doctrinal disputes over the meaning of Scripture have always required a living authority, a living judge. The Church, established by Jesus on the the rock of Peter's faith, is the natural interpreter of the Bible that it itself compiled. Without such a God-appointed teacher the Bible is reduced to a mass of seeming contradictions, open to the manifold and contrary individualistic readings of every inquirer, each one finding what he or she wishes to find.

Are the Scriptures really enough?
Why do so many Protestants subscribe to this notion of Sola Scriptura? I hadn't even heard of the doctrine until last year, when David Koyzis mentioned it on his blog, and Gregory Baus posted a few links which I followed and considered.

The basis of this doctrine seems to lie in Paul's second letter to Timothy, which states that: 'All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.' (3.16-17)

Well, that's quite right, but really all Paul is saying is that the Scriptures are useful in equipping 'the man of God' for every good work. He nowhere says, or even implies that the Scriptures are sufficient, and indeed Paul seems to indicate that certain unnamed traditions and unidentified teachings are needed too (1 Cor. 11.2; 2 Thess. 2.15, 3.6; 2 Tim. 2.2, 3.14) .

Even if Paul had been claiming that the entirety of the Sacred Deposit of Faith was contained within the Scriptures, he was referring solely to the Scriptures that Timothy had used since childhood (3.15), being those used by the Jews, indeed, those used by Hellenized Jews such as Paul himself. You know? The Septuagint, complete with all forty-six books of the Old Testament?

If this passage proved anything at all to the effect that Scriptures are the only valid rule for our faith, it would in fact be claiming that the Old Testament alone was sufficient. Granted, on numerous occasions Jesus is recorded as having cited the Scriptures - the Septuagint again - and he indeed rebuked the Pharisees for having departed from God's commandments while insisting that man-made rules be kept (Mark 7.9, Matt. 15.1-9) - but it would clearly be going too far to say that the Jewish Scriptures would be a sufficient rule for any Christian.

What's more, there's good reason to believe that there's rather more to the Word of God than is included in the Bible. After all, John's Gospel observes that 'Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.'(20.30-1) and 'But there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.' (21.25)

In other words, the Gospels can enable us to believe in Jesus, but they don't include all that Jesus did or said; how could they, when they say hardly anything about what Jesus taught in the time he spent with the Apostles after his resurrection, teaching them about the Kingdom of Heaven (Acts 1.3) or opening their minds to the meaning of the Scriptures (Luke 24.45). In fact, how many days even in Jesus's time as a teacher do the Gospels tell us about? A couple of dozen at a push, I'd estimate.

That's not to say that the Church has a secret source of knowledge about what Jesus said and did, passed on from bishop to bishop from the time of the Apostles to our own day; to believe that would be absurd, and would support ludicrous anti-Catholic claims that the Church invents doctrines. However, if one accepts that Jesus established a Church (Matt.16.18-19, 18.18), described by Paul as 'the pillar and bulwark of the truth' (1 Tim. 3.15), with a mission to baptise and preach, accompanied by Christ himself until the end of time (Matt. 28.19-20), then one should also remember Christ's words to his emissaries when he said 'He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me.' (Luke 10.16)

The Christian revelation may well have been complete with Jesus and what he said and did, but that does not mean that our understanding of it has been explicit from the first; the Church has from the first clarified and elucidated that Revelation, clearing up misunderstandings and obscurities. After all, Christianity was not established as a 'religion of the book'; rather, the Word of God is a living thing, not a dead letter; Christ, through the Holy Spirit that dwells in the Church, opens our minds to understand and interpret the Scriptures in a manner consistent with Tradition, giving us access to the Sacred Deposit of our Faith.

Though the Canonical Scriptures of the Bible are preeminent among our sources of Christian self-knowledge, they are not sufficient. Rather, we can and should also learn from history in general, from the writings of the earliest Christians, notably the Church Fathers, from what the Councils of the Apostolic Church have discussed and taught, and from those dogmas solemnly defined by the successors of St Peter.

The Cliff Notes Version
Back in the dawn of blogtime, Sarah Jones suggested that I write a Cliff Notes version of my blog, so in an attempt to sum up what I've been trying to work through here, I think the doctrine of sola scriptura, upon which most Protestant denominations are largely based, is deeply flawed for four main reasons.

1. There was a Christian Church, in some sense, before there were any specifically Christian scriptures, though the Jewish scriptures were found to be useful for the earliest Christians. Furthermore, it took time for the Christian scriptures that we revere as the New Testament to be written and accepted; the entire Christian Canon as a whole was not formally defined until more than three centuries had passed since the Death, Resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus and the infusion of the Holy Spirit into the Church at Pentecost. In effect, the Christian Scriptures were a divinely inspired creation of the Church.

2. It seems perverse to accept the views of the early Church on what Christian texts should be deemed divinely inspired scriptures but to ignore its views on other matters. Furthermore, it seems particular strange to accept the Pharisean revision of the Old Testament at Jamnia, and exclude seven books from the Old Testament, despite the fact that the Jewish Scriptures that had been used by the authors of the New Testament had included those seven books.

3. The meaning of scripture is often far from self-evident, and left to our own devices we can generate many contrary interpretations of Scripture. It would have been unreasonable of God to have left us with an infallible and divinely inspired text without an infallible and divinely inspired judge and teacher to explain the meaning of that text.

4. The doctrine of sola scriptura seems to be itself unbiblical, as the New Testament authors speak of the importance of traditions and oral teaching, observe that Jesus did and said more than is recorded in the Gospels, and stress that the authority and inspiration of the Church that Jesus founded on Peter's faith would last until the end of the world.

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