Sola Me

Our brother at 1517 has stated some things.  Let us look at them, piece by piece:

The Roman Catholic Church has long held that the Bible is the product of the church. That is, the church gives birth, as it were, to the Scriptures. There is an implicit subordination implied in this formula. This is why, when discussing doctrine with a Roman Catholic it does no good to say something like, “But purgatory is found nowhere in the Bible,” or “But the Bible says none of those things about Mary,” or even, “But the Bible tells us that there is only one mediator between God and man.” The reason this line of argument is so fruitless with a Roman Catholic is because the Bible is not their ultimate source of authority because they believe the Bible is the product of the church and not the other way around.

The claim is here made that the Catholic Church teaches that the bible is the product of the Church.  And that this therefore leads to certain implications about its subordination, both theoretically and in practical use.  Now there is some truth what is here claimed.  There is no doubt that the bible is, in a sense, the product of the Church.  It is a plain fact of history.  The Church was born on Pentecost, before any of the New Testament had ever been written.  Most of the New Testament was written by the Apostle Paul, or his co-workers, and he wasn’t converted to the Faith until after Pentecost.  Furthermore, once converted, he went away for a while to learn the Faith.  He subsequently went on missionary journeys, during which most of his writings were generated.  So, the individual writings that comprise the New Testament weren’t written until well after the Church was born.  On top of this, one can also add the fact that the first “correct” list of canonical (New Testament) books was not penned until AD 367.  The first “correct” list of Old and New Testament canonical books did not surface until about 20-30 years after that.  So the bible, as we know it, did not surface until about 370 years after the Church was born.  So, it is quite clear that there is a sense in which the bible is the product of the Church.  Her members wrote the books and “canonized” the books.

This is, of course, not to neglect the primary role of the Holy Spirit in the writing and selecting of the books.  And this hints a bit at another sense in which the bible is not, of course, the product of the Church.  The Church certainly precedes the bible in time, and certainly produced the bible, but she produced the bible as a secondary cause.  The primary cause is, of course, God.  And so, while Catholics clearly state the plain fact that the bible is a product of the Church, they don’t thereby mean that it is therefore just some loose association of human writings, to be neglected at will.  The bible is divinely inspired and neglected, should we so choose, to our peril.  So, while acknowledging that divine revelation can come to us through means outside of the bible, Catholics certainly don’t downplay its inspiration.  It’s just that the Church, “the pillar and bulwark of truth”, precedes the bible, and thus there exists a group of Christians (i.e., the earliest ones) for whom the bible could not play the role it does today among Protestants.  Sure, they had the Old Testament (though not yet canonized), but that’s not the bible.

In contrast, the Protestant Reformation rightly understood that the church is the creatura verbi: the creation of the word. God creates with the power of His word. This is seen in creation and the new creation. His word is powerful to bring substance out of nothing and life from death. His creative word brought worlds to be and His redemptive word brought to be a people for his own possession. The church is no more the creator of the Bible as is man the creator of his own salvation. This was a revolutionary assertion in the 16th century. If the church was a product of the Word then the Bible must hold sway over church councils, over popes, and over tradition. Such a formula would put at risk the power of the Roman magesterium, the teaching office of the church.

This is not so much a “contrast” as a bit of a bait and switch.  Clearly, the Church is a creation of the word.  There is absolutely nothing revolutionary about this claim.  I have said above that the Church was created at Pentecost, through the descending action of the Holy Spirit.  Slightly differently, St. John pictures the creation of the Church, the New Eve, from the wounded side of the New Adam, when the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist are foreshadowed as pouring forth from his side, as from his rib.  The Church is, in one image, the Bride to the Bridegroom, and in another image, the Body to the Head.  Clearly, all of this is, at minimum, given to us to make sure we understand that the Church is created by Christ, the Word Made Flesh.  God spoke the word and the world was created ex nihilo.  The Word was made flesh and the Church was created.  The bit about the idea of the Church being a product of the Word being a revolution is mistaken.  Catholics have ever known it.

However, we do agree with our interlocutor in one respect.  There was a revolution (i.e., a novelty) in the 16th century, and it is this (and this is where the bait and switch comes in too); namely, that the creative action of the Word is somehow confined to a series of writings.  Sure, the Church is the creation of the word, but the revolution of the Gospel is that the Word was made flesh.  The Church is the creation of the Word, but the Word is not confined to a book.  The Word is a person.  He created the Church.  It doesn’t follow that, because the Church is a creation of the Word, the bible is the ultimate source of authority.  What it does entail is that the Word is the ultimate source of authority.  To conflate the Word with the bible is unwarranted.  None of this, of course, answers the question of where to find that Word.  How does the authoritative Word convey himself?  Certainly, in the bible.  But is this the only place?  The answer of all Christians up until the 16th century was, no.  And in fact, their view has many biblical data to support it, beside the obvious and usual logical arguments.

By the time Luther came along, Church tradition had come to include a number of different doctrines and practices handed down to the church over the centuries by Popes and councils. Thus, “Holy writ” and “Holy tradition” were both looked to as authoritative sources of revelation. In command of both was the church’s magisterium which claimed ultimate authority in the interpretation of Scripture and tradition.

One could quibble about wording, here, but by and large this is true.  The doctrines and practices that were handed down, were handed down “through” popes and councils.  Not “by”, because ultimately these doctrines and practices belonged to the deposit of faith, maybe in seed form, their full import to be later developed and explicated by popes and councils.  The traditions which had been received by word of mouth or by letter (cf. 2 Thess 2:15) were certainly looked upon as authoritative, and the teaching office of the Church was certainly tasked with authentically interpreting the Faith.  But surely that’s not very controversial.

The Roman Catholic Church has long made a caricature of Sola Scriptura saying that it would lead to chaos and an “every man for himself” approach to interpreting the Bible. Sadly, while this was never the doctrine of Sola Scriptura as articulated by the Reformers it has become the practice of many Protestant Christians. I have been told, “No one is going to tell me how to interpret the Bible.” This is a dangerous perspective. While holding that God’s Word is infallible, Sola Scriptura rejects the idea that the Bible can be read and properly interpreted without any accountability. It is the wise Christian who looks to those godly scholars who have labored long in the languages and doctrines of the Bible for help to rightly interpret God’s Word. But this is a hard thing to convince a contemporary church given more to the reading of Sports Illustrated and Good Housekeeping than sound biblical commentaries.

The first thing that a Catholic should always ask when someone claims that the Church has said such and such a thing is, please give me a citation.  I imagine, though, that our interlocutor has here confused “what the Church teaches” and “what some of her members say.”  I am certainly open to correction on that point, but I would be surprised to find the Church getting into the nitty gritty of the implications of certain Protestant doctrines.  And while I (not the Church) would certainly grant the point that the Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura is not “every man for himself”, “every man for himself” certainly is the logical trajectory that such a doctrine would be expected to take if given sufficient time.  And this logic does certainly seem to have been borne out over the course of the last 5 centuries.  It seems  a bit stingy to scoff at Catholics who have historically said that Sola Scriptura would lead to chaos when, in point of fact, Sola Scriptura has led to chaos.  By which we mean, doctrinal chaos.  You need go no further than the closest Catholic parish to find a myriad of opinions on any given topic.  However, to those seeking the Catholic position on this or that, the opportunity is there to receive a strikingly clear answer.  This, however, is most emphatically not an opportunity that is afforded to Protestants, who will be counseled to consult “godly scholars who have labored long in the languages and doctrines of the Bible”.  All of whom happen to disagree with each other on this or that topic.  To retort that those who really know their stuff don’t disagree is simply to beg the question.

Two further question arise from the above quote.  1) Is this really how God has intended Christians to firmly know the truth?  That the best way is to consult these godly people, seek their opinions, and then…what?  Decide for myself which one of them is right?  How does this not logically break back down to “every man for himself”?  All we’ve really done is add one more layer of difficulty on top of an already difficult topic.  OK, maybe…sometimes… there is a consensus among the “godly”.  How is this different in practice from what the teaching office of the Catholic Church does?  In seeking to answer a thorny question, she simply mulls through what the godly and learned have said, and renders a judgment.  The only difference is that the ultimate arbiter of the question is someone who is in a position of authority in the Church, instead of…me.

2) The second question has already been partially addressed.  How is this referral of the individual to godly and learned sources different than the Catholic Church referring her children to…godly and learned sources (i.e., the teaching office of the Church)?  The only differences I can see is that we disagree on who is godly and learned, and who gets to decide who is godly and learned.  In one case, the teachers of the Church decide, and in the other, it’s…me.  Again, how does this not break back down to “every man for himself”?

The fact is, tradition can and should play an important part in the life of God’s people. It matters what the long line of faithful witnesses that have gone before us have believed and practiced. They were certainly not infallible. However, it is destructive arrogance to ignore or otherwise reject the wise counsel of our predecessors in the faith. The crucial difference is that Protestants reject the idea that tradition can be considered authoritative in the way that Scripture is authoritative. Authority is perhaps the central issue of Sola Scriptura. Certainly, there are implications with inspiration, infallibility, and sufficiency. But authority is at the heart of Sola Scriptura.

There is a hefty amount of begging the question in the above quote.  Namely, the core of the issue at hand is how to know what is true and what is false.  It is certainly true that tradition plays an important role in how we come to know the truth.  It is certainly true that it is folly to “reject the wise counsel of our predecessors in the faith”.  Moreover, it is certainly true that certain people have held erroneous traditions to be true at various times in Church history.  But given all of this, how is it that we come to determine which counsels were “wise” and which weren’t?  Is it simply by…me…determining which counsels wisely line up with the bible and which don’t?  How is that acknowledging any utility to tradition at all?  Is the purpose of tradition simply to suggest potential biblical interpretations that…I…then get to sift?  Acknowledging that they are wise means perhaps deferring to what they thought.  But do I get to be the final court of authority as to whether I need to defer to it?  And this is different from “every man for himself”…how?  And how is this different from the action of the teaching office of the Catholic Church?  Except that it’s the teaching office that does the sifting and not…me.

And this is not supposed to lead to chaos…how?

Ultimately, as our interlocutor says, it does come down to authority.  But the question is not whether the Church or the bible has the ultimate authority.  The question is whether the Church or I have ultimate authority.  And at the root, this is a question about the nature of revelation in general.  Is revelation something I receive?  Or is it something I decide?  There are some questions upon which we individuals are called to exercise private judgment, and Protestants and Catholics are in agreement about this much: this dilemna over the nature of revelation is one of them.


~ by Rob on November 25, 2008.

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