Wednesday, September 03, 2008

My Favorite Quote So Far on Sola Scriptura

Cyril, bishop of Jerusalem writes in his Catechetical Lectures: "For concerning the divine and holy mysteries of the Faith, not even a casual statement must be delivered without the Holy Scriptures; nor must we be drawn aside by mere plausibility and artifices of speech. Even to me, who tell thee these things, give not absolute creedence, unless thou receive the proof of the things which I announce from the Divine Scriptures. For this salvation which we believe depends not on ingenious reasoning, but on demonstration of the Holy Scriptures." (IV:17)

Notice that Cyril does not appeal to his authority as a bishop but rather insists that all Christians must search the Divine Scriptures for themselves. They cannot take his word for it unless they have demonstration from the Holy Scriptures. Salvation and those things necessary for it do not depend upon "ingenious reasoning." The Scriptures are clear and sufficient to serve as the ultimate, infallible authority for matters of faith and piety.

1 comment:

Brad Littlejohn said...

Hey Toby,
I’m jumping in here after too long an absence, and so I’ll be commenting on several of your posts at once. Since this is the most recent, I will comment here, even though it’s not really this post in particular that I’m commenting on.
It’s interesting that you should start citing Principle of Protestantism and Shape of Sola Scriptura, because I delved back into both of those books late this summer, and was surprised to find that I didn’t find them nearly as persuasive and well-argued as I had remembered them. The Sola Scriptura book in particular I found to be rather vague, noncommittal, and incoherent, as well as historically unsatisfactory. I posted a fairly long meditation in response to it a couple months back here:
Not sure how valuable what I said in there was, but the gist of my concern was that Mathison, while claiming to give us the “shape” of sola Scriptura, does no such thing—instead of telling us what it is, he mostly just tells us what it isn’t. It isn’t, he insists, solo Scriptura, in which all that matters is each individual’s (or group’s) interpretation of Scripture, because we believe that tradition plays a role; nor is it the Catholic view, he says, because we believe that tradition is subordinate to, not parallel to, the Scriptural witness. But I’m not sure how much this has really told us. Scripture is the ultimate foundation of authority, but Scripture needs to be mediated through church tradition, which guides us to the proper interpretation of Scripture--it seems at times that this is basically what Mathison is saying. But if so, where’s the difference with the Catholics or, at least, with Anglo-Catholics? From what I’ve been able to tell, while Catholics insist that there are important unwritten traditions, they insist that these do not have an independent authority from the Scriptures themselves, but must serve to elucidate and interpret what we already have in Scripture. Thus, as I understand it, they would agree in principle that Scripture is the supreme authority upon which all else needs to rest. In other words, it seems that the parties to this dispute all agree that Scripture needs to be the foundation; the question is whether the walls and pillars on top (the teachings of the Church) are as indispensable a part of the building as the foundation is. I know I’m not expressing this terribly well and that I’m probably mischaracterizing the Catholic position; but I remember having been surprised this summer when I tried to get a handle on the Catholic position, and they didn’t really seem to be saying what Mathison says they say (that Scripture is only one among a number of equally ultimate sources of authority).
Another way of coming at my concern: Mathison admits that tradition, specifically the regula fidei, must interpret Scripture. But it’s hard to see what his criterion is for what goes into that regulating tradition, that regula fidei. The first four ecumenical councils seem to have that authority, but it mysteriously stops there. The last three do not, nor do later teachings of the Catholic Church. As far as I can tell, what Mathison is really saying is, “The authoritative interpretation of Scripture must belong to the regula fidei, but the regula fidei only includes those doctrines that Protestants will agree to.” Or am I missing something?
It was also not clear to me that the Church Fathers quite fit into the neat little categories (Tradition I, Tradition II) that Mathison constructed for them. But perhaps I’m missing something…I haven’t studied them nearly enough.
Anyway, tell me if I’m missing something, or mischaracterizing something, in Mathison.

I also had a couple questions about your defense of the notion of sola Scriptura. You made a couple of crucial points. One is to say that Scripture is clear enough and easy enough, so we don’t need tradition to keep us in line. This Protestant doctrine has always struck me as a little odd. The Scriptures are clear and easy? I don’t see how it’s enough to say that they’re clear and easy enough that an individual can, with a Spirit-filled heart, learn what is necessary to believe Christ and follow his commands. But that’s not the same as saying that they’re clear and easy enough to sustain a whole community, much less a whole bunch of communities, through all the complex decisions and interpretations they will have to make. There’s plenty of complexity and ambiguity to lead to differences of opinion about very important things—for example, the permissibility of war and violence. Or, more practically, how to worship. Of course, the traditions of the Church are by no means unanimous and lucid on these and many other subjects either (though they are much more nearly so on some subjects), but they do at least provide guidance and ease the interpreting process by defining the permissible boundaries of legitimate interpretation.

You also said that it’s not fair to blame all the schism in Protestant churches on the sola Scriptura principle. Schism, you said, comes from a sinful, unloving attitude, not from the lack of authority and tradition, because it can happen even in the Catholic and Orthodox conclusions. Perhaps I’m missing something, but this seems to be a very insufficient rebuttal. First, I don’t see how you can equate the divisions within Catholic and Orthodox churches to the kinds of divisions we have in Protestantism. That’s like saying that getting divorced is no worse than being a married couple that fights every day. Of course they’re both sinful, but one is a much bigger sin and problem than the other. More importantly, your argument seems equivalent to this: “Two men are discussing the merits of corporal punishment and disciplining their children. One says, ‘Well, look at the Smiths. They don’t discipline their children and look how those kids just run wild and totally disrespect them.” The second man replies, ‘What? The Smiths? No—the problem with their kids is that they have sinful hearts and disrespectful attitudes, not that they haven’t been disciplined.’” We recognize the fallacy here easily. Of course the problem is sin on one level. But there will always be sin, and as much as we work to fix that, it will always risk division in the churches. But for precisely that reason, we need means of restraining that sin and of disciplining the wayward and encouraging unity. No one’s saying that in Catholic and Orthodox churches, there have been no unloving attitudes or divisive tendencies (indeed, there was obviously enough for the Great Schism); however, on the whole, the understanding of tradition and authority in these churches has enabled them to keep those divisive tendencies from bursting over into full-fledged schism, and has encouraged a growth in unity. The same goes, to a lesser extent, for the Anglican churches.

On a somewhat different note, you at least implicitly agreed with Schaff’s assessment of the Anglo-Catholic movement. I’m not sure this evaluation is particularly helpful. I’ve been researching this particular question for a chapter in my book, and have concluded that Nevin and Schaff, and Schaff in particular, were rather confused and inconsistent in their criticism of the Oxford Movement. The real issue is not episcopacy, I think, which Nevin at least implicitly agrees with, but eschatology. I’ll be posting some discussion of this on my blog over the next couple weeks, so I won’t say more here.