Image by Chris Searle (9-29-15) [Flickr / Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)]
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(1-28-04; slight modifications and abridgment on 9-5-17)
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We don’t have to believe either Scripture is perfectly clear or perfectly obscure. Catholics can and do say that Scripture is largely and substantially clear, but a teaching authority and limits to hermeneutics and exegesis are still desirable, necessary, and suggested in Holy Scripture itself (e.g., the Jerusalem Council, or Peter’s early sermons where he “officially” interprets Scripture, or the statements against “private interpretation,” etc.). Many Protestants can’t comprehend a non-sola Scriptura position as anything but a sola ecclesia position. But that’s neither logical nor biblical.
The debate really reduces to (much as Protestants may protest against the stark contrast): “private, individual interpretation vs. corporate, traditional interpretation.” The Bible, the fathers, the Church, and tradition condemn such private judgment and interpretation, but that’s not good enough for Protestants; they have to retain it because the alternatives are Catholicism or Orthodoxy, and they don’t like those systems. If Protestants tell us, “you gotta go back to Scripture,” then we reply that we agree, as long as Scripture is not interpreted in contradiction against developed tradition and the Church.
Protestants must fall back on themselves; hence sola Scriptura and private judgment. They don’t like required, ultimate submission and they don’t like required tradition (speaking very broadly), and so sola Scriptura was the arbitrary, circular, unbiblical tradition (another irony) that they substituted for those things. The underlying reasons why Protestants believe in sola Scriptura are very simple (in my opinion): they don’t like the alternatives and this is really their only choice, given that prior hostility. The alternative is unthinkable.
Private judgment may be defined as placing oneself (at least theoretically and potentially) in a position of final authority over against Church and Tradition if needs be, usually appealing to one’s own (ultimately subjective and non-binding) interpretation of the Bible in so doing. Or, as an alternate definition: Private judgment is the separation of biblical interpretation from the “veto” or parameters set by the Church and tradition, beyond which no exegete can go.
The cross was a stumbling-block to the Jews, the resurrection was to the Greeks, etc., but Paul still proclaimed them and took his lumps (including the derision of the “smart people”: the philosophers at Mars Hill in Athens). Tradition is a stumbling-block to many Protestants, but it can’t be avoided, since it is itself a biblical term, used many times (especially by St. Paul) — and since they have their own traditions as well, whether consciously or not. Likewise, apostolic succession is a stumbling-block for Protestants, just as full-bodied tradition is, for it implies continuity and binding authority, and that is too “Catholic.”
When the Protestant presuppositions of sola Scriptura, private judgment, and perspicuity (clearness) of Scripture are closely examined, they are discovered to be inevitably circular:
1. Sola Scriptura is the idea that Scripture is the only infallible authority (over against Church and tradition). And this Scripture is clear in the main and sufficient for salvation for the individual, and able to be understood in the main by any individual with rudimentary education.
2. But whose interpretation of Scripture? One can’t merely say “the biblical view” without immediately coming up against questions of hermeneutics and exegesis and relative strengths of particular views on particular passages with regard to any given doctrine under dispute.
3. So, then, sola Scriptura inevitably reduces to (for example):
A) “Luther’s and Anglicans’ and Methodists’ clear biblical interpretation of (infant) baptismal regeneration.”
B) “Calvin’s clear biblical interpretation of non-regenerative (infant) baptism as a “sign and seal.”
C) “The Anabaptists’ and Baptist’s clear biblical interpretation of non-regenerative, purely symbolic adult baptism.”D) “The Church of Christ’s and Disciples of Christ’s clear biblical interpretation of regenerative adult baptism.”
E) “The Quakers’ and Salvation Army’s clear biblical interpretation of no necessity for baptism at all.”
It is only as good as any individual or denominational biblical interpretation. No one can deny this, for no Protestant can tell us why their interpretation of the Bible must be binding rather than the other guy’s, from within their sola Scriptura framework. To do so would be to repeat the same “error” which they oppose: some “tradition” against the “clear” witness of the Bible.
4. Therefore, sola Scriptura is completely circular:
A) “Scripture is the final authority” always reduces to (per the above): “My, or my denomination’s ultimately arbitrary, tradition-based interpretation of the Bible is the final authority.”
B) This, in turn, is simultaneously the definition and prerogative of private judgment, and the entire structure is circular and arbitrary, because it maintains a pretense of being divorced from history and strictly “biblical” when in fact men’s biases and traditions cannot possibly be avoided.
C) The circular result, then, might be described as: “men’s (often) a-historical traditions are the final authority over historical traditions of the Church (based on unbroken apostolic succession).”
D) One tradition is thought to be superior to another, but on woefully inadequate and wholly arbitrary grounds because it is insufficiently rooted in the history of the “mainstream” Christian tradition.
5. Thus, sectarianism and doctrinal contradiction are inevitable as a result, and this is, in fact, what we have observed throughout Protestant history.
I was appealing to history as a Protestant in the early 1980s, when I was refuting Jehovah’s Witnesses, and arguing that they were wrong both on scriptural grounds and on the grounds that the early Church and the fathers did not teach Arianism, and that it was a late novelty. So even as a good evangelical Protestant, I was pretty much arguing the way the Church fathers would: primarily using Scripture to refute the error but also claiming that novelties rejected by the Church Universal are untrue.
Lastly, the Protestant notion of “Church” cannot be sustained for a second from history. This is one reason why many variants of Protestantism are so a-historical in tendency. What rational person can argue that congregationalism, for example, was the normative form of Church government throughout Church history, or that episcopacy was not the norm, and was an “unbiblical” system of governance?