Justice (David Opderbeck)

David Opderbeck is Professor of Law and Director of the Gibbons Institute of Law, Science & Technology at Seton Hall University Law School.  He is also a Ph.D. candidate in Philosophical Theology at the University of Nottingham.

The Relationship of Doctrine to Ethics and Justice

It has been a while since I posted on Nicholas Wolterstorff’s  books Justice:  Rights and Wrongs and Justice in Love – life and work have been busy!  Today I return to the theme of “justice.”   However I will take a diversion from Wolterstoff’s particular thesis to address a question that underlies, and I think in some ways animates, his project:  the relationship of Doctrine to Ethics and Justice.  This seemingly arcane issue is timely and relevant because it goes to the heart of contemporary Evangelical debates such as Calvinism vs. Arminianism, the doctrine of final judgment and Hell, and gay marriage.

The question is this:  do Ethics serve as a control on Doctrine?  Or does Doctrine serve as a control on Ethics?  Or do Doctrine and Ethics stand in a perfectly harmonious relationship?  Or do Doctrine and Ethics stand in some more complex sort of relationship?

Rob Bell’s book Love Wins at times seems to suggest that Ethics control Doctrine.  That is, if our ethical beliefs are offended by some construction of the doctrine of final judgment, then that doctrinal construction is wrong.  Francis Chan’s book Erasing Hell and Mark Galli’s book God Wins at times seem to suggest that Doctrine controls Ethics.  That is, if the doctrine of God’s sovereignty says “God can do whatever he wants,” and the doctrine of scripture says God’s word is inviolable, then the doctrinal belief that God has ordained the damnation of the majority of humanity cannot be questioned, even if this offends our ethical beliefs.

So who is right?

A helpful sketch of the options can be found in Alan Torrance and Michael Banner’s introduction to the excellent volume The Doctrine of God and Theological Ethics.  Torrance and Banner trace the modern influence of the “Doctrine controls Ethics” theme to Emmanuel Kant.  For Kant, who sought to establish ethics on the foundation of “pure reason,” “[e]ven the holy one of the Gospel must be compared with our ideal of moral perfection, before he is recognized as such.”  The problem with this approach is that “God” becomes reducible to human reason – and thus ceases to be God.

Torrance and Banner cite Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonheoffer as champions of “Doctrine controls Ethics.”   Barth famously rejected any “natural theology” and therefore refused to locate ethics outside of dogmatics – “dogmatics itself is ethics,” Barth said.  Torrance and Banner do not mention Cornelius Van Til, whose presuppositionalist apologetic holds significant influence over American neo-Calvinists and many other Evangelicals.  Van Til thought Barth was a heretic, but he was cut from the same mold as Barth concerning the priority of Doctrine over Ethics.  The key difference was that Barth’s doctrine of revelation was Christological – for Barth, Christ was the ground of revelation and of ethics – whereas Van Til’s doctrine of revelation was Biblicist.  The problem with the “Doctrine controls Ethics” approach is that “Ethics” become reducible to the pure exercise of power – and thus cease to be Ethics.

As Torrance and Banner note, however, a “control” relationship between Doctrine and Ethics is not the only option.  Many great Christian thinkers have held that Doctrine and Ethics, properly understood, stand in a perfectly harmonious relationship.  This was the view of Thomas Aquinas, whose theory of “natural law” remains the basis for contemporary Roman Catholic social teaching and also informs many contemporary Evangelical ethicists.  For Aquinas, the “natural law” is part of the created order, which flows from the very being of God.  Natural law, as part of creation, is knowable through natural reason.  But the proper exercise of reason is never “pure reason,” apart from faith.  Reason is rather a preparation for contemplation of the deeper truths of faith, which enrich and go beyond, but never contradict, the truths of reason.  A problem with this approach is that it can tend to discount the effects of sin on nature and the consequent need for grace to overcome the corruption of nature.  (This perceived priority of nature over grace was a key point of disputation between Martin Luther and the the Catholic apologists who opposed him).

It is also possible, Torrance and Banner suggest, that Doctrine and Ethics could simply occupy entirely different spheres of knowledge.  In this heuristic, “Doctrine” is essentially the mystical contemplation of a God who is rationally unknowable, and Ethics represents what is necessary to get by in the material world.  Torrance and Banner cite the Germen pietist and Anabaptist quietist traditions as examples of this approach.  The emphasis for ethics here is withdrawal from the corruption of the world.  We might add that some Eastern Orthodox and Pentecostal approaches fit this mold.  (There is also, I think, a significant pietist / quietist strain in Mark Galli’s recent books, along with a “control” strain).

Finally, Torrance and Banner offer a hybrid approach, to which they clearly are partial:  “the relationship – or better, relationships – between doctrine and ethics are more various and subtle than can be represented by any one of the positions thus far mentioned, taken in isolation.”  This final position, they say, “will not simply reject these accounts; indeed it will think it likely that these accounts were founded on certain insights or seeming insights which must, in turn, be accommodated or accounted for in any satisfactory treatment of this matter.”

It probably would be no surprise to anyone who has read any of my essays and blogs that I tend to agree with this hybrid / dialectical approach, which of course must be carefully developed.  But what do you think of this sketch of different approaches to the relationship between Doctrine and Ethics?  How might a better understanding of the relationship between Doctrine and Ethics help inform our present debates about Calvinism, Hell, and social issues such as homosexuality or the welfare state?

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  • Mick Porter

    I love this – having expended much energy trying to influence some Reformed and doctrine-centric churches to “get justice” but having never quite considered things according to the categories you describe here.

    One thing I’ve noticed that relates to your question – as someone becomes more aware of injustice in the world and of the theme of justice in the biblical narrative they seem to become much more open to considering doctrinal options around topics like hell etc.

  • I don’t think you can divorce reason from the rest of human life? Couldn’t we say there is such a thing as thinking godly, or after/according to God’s thoughts? Of course how much of that is provisional in the current state of things is up in the air. But thinking and living, living and thinking- just can’t be neatly separated like this. Both part of one whole, or at least in some kind of close relationship.

    As to the questions you put, surely you’ve thought that through. Interesting. I wonder if life lived relates to our thoughts. If we develop thinking in isolation we err. Not the way of Jesus, who seemed to be very much in touch with the society of his day.

  • Great post, by the way!

  • Dave,

    Indeed, the “hybrid” approach is the way to go, even for those of us who systematically endeavor to abide in His Word. I can not understand the Bible when it talks about love and forgiveness without importing my own experience (natural theology). Doing theology and ethics therefore represents a complex interplay of processes and evaluations.

    However, despite this complex interplay, liberals should take no consolation that this consideration might give them the necessary wiggle-room to enable them to justify a liberal moral agenda – abortion, gay rights. This interplay should not adversely impact our requirement to take all thoughts into conformity with the Gospel (2 Cor. 10:4-5).

  • TSG

    Aren’t there currently champions of an Ethics controls Doctrine theme? To put it succinctly, that God is a construct of man. That ethics come from group evolution. Memetics as the realm of neuroscience. Hitchens, Dawkins, et al.

  • Great sketch of huge topic! Even tho it’s philosophical ethics under discussion, seems that biblical texts like 1 Timothy 1:10 are provocative. Paul lists a bunch of sinful behaviors, Ethics, and then refers to those ethical behaviors as “contrary to sound doctrine according to the glorious gospel”. In some way or fashion, the behavior/life together of the new community is Doctrine. And doctrine is all about a new Ethical life.

  • Robin

    I am having a hard time understanding the hybrid approach. Could someone sketch out a practical illustration?

    I am definitely a “doctrine controls ethics” kind of guy, mainly because I see ethics as being more susceptible to being twisted by depravity. It is not uncommon to hear things like “I could never worship a God who disapproved of my lifestyle, therefore God must condone homosexuality” or “God wants me to be happy, and what would make me happy is leaving my husband, therefore God must be OK with my divorce.”

    I’m not saying our doctrine couldn’t be twisted in similar ways, but the things that tend to twist our ethics seem to be stronger. I think those are the main concerns that “doctrine guys” have when people start using their ethics or feelings to be primary interpreters of revelation.

  • Robin

    The other thing about having a theology that is driven in a large part by natural theology is that there doesn’t seem to be a fixed point of reference. The attitudes and beliefs that will seem common change very much with each generation and across geographies.

    Maybe my understanding of natural theology is incorrect, if so please correct me, but it seems like if natural theology was your starting place in ethical considerations you would reach very different conclusions if you lived in America or the third world, 20th century or 12th century or 1st century. Whereas one generation/geography might see slavery/polygamy/subjugation of women/persecution of Jews as perfectly natural extensions of the ethics of the natural world, those would obviously vary by culture.

    Natural theology, in and of itself, doesn’t seem to provide a good defense against that kind of thinking. Indeed in my conceptualization it seems highly relativistic (so please feel free to correct my understanding).

  • T

    I’m a hybrid guy, but hybrid leaning strongly with Barth.

    In that vein, this statement isn’t rock solid: “The problem with the ‘Doctrine controls Ethics’ approach is that ‘Ethics’ become reducible to the pure exercise of power – and thus cease to be Ethics.” I don’t think Ethics which are defined by Christology are reducible to the pure exercise of power.

    Let me add here that I tend to think of any “ethic” in a somewhat realist way, namely, an “ethic” is any plan of behavior which are derived from one’s understanding of the playing field of reality and one’s goals. Christ reveals to us not only the Father (as the most significant player in our universe) but also what love is, what humanity can be, what powers are at work and how they interact, and what each pursues and how. Christ paints a very holistic picture of everything, asks us to trust this picture, to trust him, and to follow. This is not merely a power play. It is the crisis of being presented with a holistic revelation of the universe and all its players (including us), and asking us to act in a way that makes sense if that revelation is true.

    So, I am a hybrid in the sense that I also believe that this universe does also speak in a natural law kind of way, a la Aquinas, and also because, as I said above, a Christological ethic isn’t merely authoritarian, but Christ also reasons with us, reveals to us why his Way makes the most sense of any path. Indeed, we misrepresent God if we say that a Christological ethic is “reducible to the pure exercise of power – and thus cease to be Ethics.” The cross alone speaks powerfully against that notion, unless the ‘power’ being exercised is self-giving love to the world.

  • I believe that ultimately there is a harmonious relationship between doctrine and ethics; and where there is disharmony we need to be willing to weigh the evidence on both sides and change which ever is lacking (more of a hybrid approach). Concerning the basis of revelation, I would lean more towards it being Christological, believing that Jesus is the perfect revelation of God, the center of the bulls-eye. Scripture would be the 2nd ring out from the bulls-eye (bibliology). The 3rd ring would be the inspired writings of believers throughout history. The 4th…

    Concerning the example of the different approaches of Bell and Chan, I disagree with both for I’ve come to understand scripture to not affirm ECT, but rather affirm universal reconciliation; thus there is harmony between the doctrines that God is sovereign and God loves all humanity.

  • dopderbeck

    Robin (#7, 8), I think you offer a good summary of some concerns from the “doctrine controls” side.

    You mention slavery. Perhaps that is a good example of how a “hybrid” or “dialectical” or approach might work out in a real example.

    “Doctrine” could be read to condone slavery, at least certain forms of slavery. Certainly, Southern antebellum pro-slavery Christian teachers thought it did. For example, here’s a clip from Robert Louis Dabney’s infamous theological defense of African slavery:

    The scriptural argument for the righteousness of slavery gives us, moreover, this great advantage: If we urge it successfully, we compel the Abolitionists either to submit, or else to declare their true infidel character. We thrust them fairly to the wall, by proving that the Bible is against them; and if they declare themselves against the Bible (as the most of them doubtless will) they lose the support of all honest believers in God’s Word.

    The Southern pro-slavery Christians labeled abolitionists as heretics, rationalists, and unbelievers. This was mainstream Southern Christian theology before the Civl War. Today, of course, even the strongest “doctrine controls” Christians, outside a lunatic fringe of White supremacists, think the abolitionists were right. Why?

    I don’t think anyone can reasonably deny that conscience — some kind of ethical sense based in our shared humanity — has moved us to reflect more deeply on what sort of “doctrine” the Bible and the Christian faith really teach about slavery and human dignity. It’s not, however, that we’re just tossing “doctrine” aside. It’s rather that we’ve come to understand that the foundational doctrines of the imago Dei and the unity of humanity render any cultural accommodation to slavery in the Biblical texts provisional. We have learned to become better “readers” of scripture and doctrine because of an inward ethical sense that has informed our hermeneutic of scripture and the development of doctrine.

    I think here we have to introduce a pneumatological perspective that perhaps isn’t clear in the chapter I summarized in this post. We should expect that we will need to return to the “text” of scripture and doctrine again and again as the Holy Spirit prompts us to do so in light of the Church’s experience in the world. Why should we assume that any “inward” light is only “humanistic”? Don’t we believe the texts of scripture and doctrine are means through and in which the Holy Spirit shows up in our midst, and that the Spirit continually illumines us as to their implications? This is a point, actually, at which I’m not really sure Torrance and Banner were correct in placing Barth and Bonhoeffer in the “doctrine controls ethics” camp, since Barth’s view of “revelation” and doctrine was deeply pneumatological.

  • dopderbeck

    T (#9) — yes, very good point about Christology, and see also in my (#11) above about Barth and pneumatology. Maybe you’re right to suggest that Torrance and Banner’s heuristic breaks down — actually, in their chapter, they also acknowledge it’s just a heuristic. Maybe at the end of the day what we’re really asking is “Which doctrine? Whose Ethic?” (to paraphrase Alasdair MacIntyre’s “Whose Justice? Which Rationality”. Barth’s Christologically-centered doctrine of election and pneumatoligically-centered doctrine of “revelation” will often produce a very different ethic than, say, Van Til’s approach.

  • Brad

    Ethics does not exist without doctrine. Not just Christian doctrine, but rather teachings of some kind about the metaphysical and the divine.

    Without theistic doctrine we have no ethics, but are left with blunt naturalism as RJS writes about in the post above. If naturalism is all that there is, than one can have behaviors that they prefer but none that are obliged.

    Might makes right and survival of the fittest is the only compelling notion for humans to follow. As CS Lewis famously pointed out in Mere Christianity, the concept of fairness and justice go right out the window.

    So you can try and do ethics before doctrine, but you find that you are trying to drive somewhere without the existence of a car.

  • T

    David (12),

    “Maybe at the end of the day what we’re really asking is ‘Which doctrine? Whose Ethic?'” Yes. I think that’s exactly what we’re asking, or should be.

    I’m thinking not only of Christ, but also of Nazi Germany, or modern-day Wall Street, or whatever camp we want to highlight. Each of them has both an ethic and a doctrine, and each makes sense in light of the other; each supported the other.

  • Robin,

    Excellent question! The Devil is in the details. It depends upon how much authority we give to non-biblical (natural theology) forms of knowing. Some want to exalt science or other forms of scholarship to an equal level. Once we do this, the Biblical faith is vulnerable to all sorts of compromises to accommodate it to the latest fads.


    In a similar note, I would agree that we should never dismiss considerations of conscience, but to elevate these considerations above the unequivocal teachings of Scripture is a mistake. Our conscience is to a great degree a product of acculturation.

    BTW, I don’t think that the Dabney example demonstrates the insufficency of Scripture to decide these matters but rather a failure of interpretation. In fact, I think it could be argued that some forms of slavery might be more socially and Scripturally viable than imprisonment.

  • dopderbeck

    Daniel (#15) — here is a point where we’ll probably end up disagreeing a bit. Once we start talking about “elevating” something “above the unequivocal teachings of Scripture,” we find ourselves in a quagmire. How do we know which teachings of scripture we think are “unequivocal?” We have to apply rules of logic, grammar, and reason — none of which are specified in scripture. So it turns out that the strongest articulation of sola scriptura ends up relying on non-Biblical foundations, and the whole thing becomes self-defeating. As a Protestant, I do believe scripture is the norma normans non normata, but I think that concept has to be articulated within a Trinitarian framework, which means tradition, reason and experience can’t be competing sources of norms with scripture.

    Re: slavery: I’m sure you don’t want to try to justify African slavery as it existed in the antebellum South? I’m not sure what other example you might have in mind, but when I think of, say, bonded debt slavery in India, it’s a horrific practice.

  • Dave,

    Community service is a form of slavery, but a very mild one. Living in a residential treatment program which requires labor is also another form. We could even argue that the Biblical prescription approaches these.

    Along with you, I certainly don’t disdain the “rules of logic, grammar, and reason.” However, I think that there is a great distinction between using then and enthroning them to a place of equality alongside of Scripture:

    **Matthew 4:4 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.'”

    Put in another way, logic and reason are Cabinet Advisors, not Kings and Dictators.

  • Richard

    @ Maybe at the end of the day what we’re really asking is “Which doctrine? Whose Ethic?”

    This is exactly the question, and the reason I don’t think Chan and Bell are approaching this as differently as is implied in the OP. They are emphasizing different aspects of doctrine and that is driving their ethic in both cases.

  • PaulE

    David #11 – Do you think Darby’s doctrine was controlling his ethics? I’m inclined to see it as quite the opposite.

  • dopderbeck

    Daniel (#17) – interesting. I wouldn’t consider community service or a mandatory residential treatment program a form of “slavery.” There’s a difference between a punishment and/or rehabilitative sentence under criminal law and “slavery.” Key parts of this difference include the following:

    — the criminal law sentence is keyed in extent and duration to the nature of a specific crime. “Slavery” generally is not related to any crime and is indefinite or essentially indefinite in duration.

    — the criminal law sentence is enforced only following a judicial proceeding presided over by a detached, neutral magistrate. “Slavery” involves no judicial review, or at most illusory judicial review.

    In the contemporary setting, I’d also suggest two other distinguishing features of “slavery”:

    — the criminal law sentence is encoded in laws enacted by a legislative body with appropriate lawmaking authority; in the contemporary West, this means appropriate democratically controlled authority. Modern “slavery” usually violates laws that are on the books and that are evaded and/or not properly enforced.

    — the criminal law sentence, in the contemporary West, is subject to an overarching Constitutional framework, which safeguards the rights due process rights of the accused / convicted person. “Slavery” involves no due process.

  • dopderbeck

    PaulE (#19) — good question. Though I’m not an expert on Darby, having read some of Darby’s writings, I suspect it went both ways: doctrine controlling ethics and ethics controlling doctrine. IMHO, there’s no denying that the theology of early American Calvinism and then of antebellum Southern Presbyterian Calvinism provided a fertile intellectual ground for justifying African slavery. OTOH, people like Darby, like all of us, were embedded in their own places and times, and his economic and social milieu surely shaped his theology.

  • Robin

    Thinking through the slavery/civil war example, and indeed thinking through the entire breadth of Church history I think there is one continuing pattern in the doctrine/ethics division:

    Ethics control doctrine, but then we pretend that our doctrine is controlling our ethics…at least this is the case in every historical situation I can think of where I clearly disagree with the actions/theology of the people involved.

    Example: secular and religious leaders were raking in tons of cash through indulgences (religious taxation) so that they could build St. Peter’s…Luther pointed out that everything about the practice was immoral, unbiblical, and irrational…church and secular leaders didn’t want to give up the money so they created entirely new justifications (doctrines) to defend the practice and pretended that true doctrine supported their fleshly desires.

    This is the case for most of the power grabs in church history. I think it is especially true of all post-colonial slavery.

    I think the key thing is that even though Dabney or the Popes might claim to be driven by doctrine, we know that they formulated their doctrine to suit their ethical desires. We could confront them on the basis of their flawed ethics, but their easiest response would be that post-modern ethics are not superior to pre-modern ethics, that we’re just culturally arrogant, etc., or we can show how their ethically twisted interpretation of doctrine is in stark contrast to true doctrine as contained in scripture.

  • David (#20),

    While we would both oppose racial slavery as practiced in this nation, the criteria you specify to distinguish slavery from sound judicial sentencing can also be regarded as reflective of the Biblical system which sentenced the “guilty” to slavery for a given period instead of prison.

    The Hebrew slaves then were released at the end of six years. They could also be redeemed from slavery by kinsmen. I’m also assuming that the non-Hebrews could easily become Hebrews through circumcision and experience the same protections. Besides, such a move would have been rational in light of the evident presence of God in their midst.

    In short, the institution of OT slavery had been a very different institution from that practiced in this country – as different as condemning the innocent rather than the guilty. They shouldn’t even be referred to be the same name.

  • EricG

    Saying doctrine trumps ethics, or vice versa, is foundationalist, and is difficult for many of us to accept these days. I would describe a good hybrid view as one where both doctrine and ethics (along with other sources) are allowed to inform the other in a sort of iterative feedback loop. The objection to this sort of view is often that it leaves us without clear, agreed upon answers, but that is the world we live in. Perhaps certainty is an idol we were never entitled to.

    So, for example, Chan should consider Bell’s ethics objection, and Bell should consider Chan’s doctrine objection, without each dismissing the other out of hand based on viewing either doctrine or ethics as foundational. If you reject the other’s view out of hand based on philosophical assumptions you never really enter into a dialogue. An interesting back-and-forth discusson could then take place.

  • dopderbeck

    EricG (#24) – yes!

    Daniel (#23) — I don’t totally disagree with you about the OT Law and slavery. The OT laws concerning slavery were in significant ways more “progressive” than the laws of other ANE cultures (see the excellent discussion in David L. Baker, Tight Fists or Open Hands: Wealth and Poverty in Old Testament Law — a really outstanding book).

    However, the OT system of chattel slavery for non-Israelites had nothing to do with guilt or crime. Lev. 25:44-46 sanctions the buying of chattel slaves, male, female, and children, who can be treated as “slaves in perpetuity,” in contrast to temporary slaves / bonded laborers who are to be freed either in the seventh year or in the Jubilee year depending on how you understand the relation of the Levitical and Deuteronomic temporary slave laws.

    There are also the rather problematic concubinage laws, which permit a father to sell his daughter as a “female slave” or “concubine” (Exod. 21:7-11).

    The chattel slave laws, it seems to me, certainly fall within the “same breath” as African slavery in the U.S., and they were in fact part of the Biblical / theological justification folks like Dabney offered for African slavery — though, yes, the cultural institutions were not exactly the same. Dabney et al. went way beyond these particular texts as well — really, the heart of their argument was an understanding that God had providentially willed the African race to be tutored in Christian civilization during some undefined period of servitude to their white Christian masters.

  • Dave (#25),

    Although both of these passages are difficult and troubling, I don’t think that they could be properly used in support of the institution of slavery as practiced here.

    The Exodus passage is about prearranged marriages. There is nothing here to suggest that the female daughter was unwilling to go along with this arrangement unlike in US slavery.

    The Leviticus passage allows slaves to be bought from other peoples. However, there is nothing in the OT that would prevent the slave from becoming an Israelite, thereby receiving the protections the Israelite slaves possessed.

    This brings us back to our original point of departure – “Has Scripture been sufficient for the believer to live faithfully before his God (2 Tim. 3:16-17) or does he need another authoritative source?”

    There is another Scriptural truth that we shouldn’t loose track of – some laws were only optimal within the theocratic Israelite setting. Jesus revealed that divorce, for instance, had been instituted not because it was ideal, but because of the hardness of their hearts (Matthew 19).

    We need to remember this principle before we apply OT laws to our present situation.

  • dopderbeck

    Daniel (#26) — I’m sorry but I think you’re over-rationalizing those passages.

    Exodus 27:7-11 clearly doesn’t refer to “arranged marriages” — it doesn’t refer to “marriages” at all, but rather uses a Hebrew word that translates “female slave, maidservant, concubine” — not “wife” (discussed in Baker, p. 152, n. 67). Further, the man who purchases a concubine may either use the concubine himself or designate her for his son (v.70). It’s pretty clear that all this refers to the sale of women on a sort of concubinage market (see the discussion in Baker, pp. 153-54).

    As to the Levitcal chattel slave laws, there is nothing in them that provides for possibility of a foreigner to become a Jew and gain freedom. In fact, Lev. 25:31 seems to prohibit this notion, because foreign chattel slaves can be treated “as slaves in perpetuity” and bequeathed to the master’s children, without any exception clause whatsoever.

    As I noted, and as Baker’s excellent book ably points out, there were nevertheless important differences between Hebrew and other ANE chattel slave laws, particularly in the human treatment of slaves. But the distinctions you’re trying to draw aren’t there.

    As to 2 Tim. 3:16-17 — “useful” or “profitable” or “beneficial” doesn’t imply that other sources might also be useful or profitable or beneficial. Indeed, 2 Tim. 3:14-15 refers to the reception of tradition (“continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it”), as does 2 Tim. 1:13-14 (“What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus. Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you—guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.”).

    In any event, as I’ve said, scripture as norma normans non normata — yes. Scripture in a vacuum or as the only source of norms — not possible.

  • As I a wont to do, I noticed one sentence in the above article that tickled me thoroughly:

    “Cornelius Van Til, whose presuppositionalist apologetic holds significant influence over American neo-Calvinists and many other Evangelicals.”

    I did several essays on Van Til back in Seminary and two years ago noticed that many of the neo-calvinists are adopting his views toward the Cultural Mandate – especially a certain proponent in the Pacific Northwest. I didn’t know anyone else had seen the connections.

  • Dave,

    I don’t think you can use mention of authoritative “tradition” to support your contention that there are other sources of truth equally authoritative to Scripture. This “tradition” is synonymous with the teachings of the Apostles, for which we now only have one source – Scripture!

    You conclude, “Scripture in a vacuum or as the only source of norms — not possible.” This is not my position at all. I haven’t been arguing in favor of “one source” but simply that Scripture has to be the pre-eminent source of truth. It must be the final arbiter in any dispute. Paul often taught in this manner:

    • 1 Tim. 6:3-4 If anyone teaches otherwise and does not consent to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which accords with godliness, he is proud, knowing nothing…

  • dopderbeck

    Daniel (#29) — But 1 Tim. 6:3-4 simply doesn’t refer to scripture as a “final arbiter,” and probably doesn’t refer to “scripture” at all, or at least not to what we think of as the canon of scripture. It refers to “the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching.” Even if the sayings of Jesus referred to here are part of the Gospels (which may or may not have been available in whole or in part to the author of 1 Timothy), the canon probably wasn’t closed when 1 Tim. was composed, the composition of the canon certainly hadn’t yet been decided, and in any event the Gospels as well as the rest of the Biblical canon contain more than sayings of Jesus. And the text also explicitly refers to “godly teaching,” which isn’t just scripture.

    Yes I agree that scripture is the norming norm — we always have to come back to scripture again and again. But we shouldn’t imagine that there is properly any conflict of norms in which any one has to trump any other. There is one source of Truth — the Triune God. Scripture itself shows us — the passages in 1 and 2 Timothy you’ve offered expressly tell us — that scripture is always received, understood and taught in the community of the Church, and that the Church’s witness to the risen Christ offers the normative lens through which the teaching of scripture is understood, lived out, and passed along. All of the sources of norms hang together like a seamless robe.

  • Dave,

    Now we are dealing with two major disagreements:

    1. What is Scripture and
    2. Is Scripture more authoritative than other sources of knowing?

    Dealing with #2, almost everything that Scripture says, it says with absolute authority – above all other sources of authority and more than just a suggestion about truth, life and belief. It tells us we must believe in a certain way even in the face of culture, present communal consensus, and the venerated traditions of the elders.

    Jesus castigated the Pharisees for placing their traditions on equal par with Scripture, declaring that, because of this, their religion was vain (Matthew 15: 9). He also made fellowship with Him conditional upon abiding in His Word (John 15:5-10) exclusively, not as one Word among others.

    Paul warned against deviating from the Gospel that he preached (Gal. 1:9) and against going beyond Scripture (1 Cor. 4:67). Isaiah declared that without Scripture, people had no ultimate light (8:20). No other sources of authority would fill the bill. Peter argued that in order to glorify God, we had to speak according to Scripture (1 Peter 4:11). Moses strongly warned against adding or subtracting from God’s Word (Deut. 4:2; 12:32). Adding another authoritative source alongside of Scripture adds to Scripture exponentially, in effect, overturning it as Jesus had warned against.

    Regarding #1, I think that you need to make the explicit case for another authoritative source equal to Scripture.

  • dopderbeck

    Daniel (#31) — well, I didn’t quite say there were other sources “equal” to scripture; I said scripture is the norma normans non normata. I certainly agree with you that scripture is “more than just a suggestion,” and never said otherwise.

    But I did say that, properly understood, there is no possibility that reason, tradition, or experience would somehow conflict with scripture. It is all God’s Truth. Therefore, I prefer picture of a “seamless robe” of Truth, rather than the picture you seem to draw of conflict.

    Note my careful qualification of “properly understood”. We easily can misunderstand scripture; we easily can misapply what we think is right reason; we easily can develop “traditions” that deviate from the faithful Apostolic tradition; we can easily miss what the Spirit says in our experience of life as Christ’s body. This is a significant reason why the Church must function as a Body. No one person gets it right.

    I really don’t want to continue the proof-texting duel. You cite some excellent references for the fundamental importance of scripture, but then, as elsewhere in this thread, you cite some references that don’t say what you say the mean and that in fact, taken together, significantly complicate your argument.

    Deut. 4:2, for example, refers not to “scripture” generally but to the Mosaic Law, and it raises a notorious problem of why Christians aren’t bound by all the provisions of the Mosaic Law. This of course was one of the first theological controversies that was dealt, at the Council of Jerusalem, based in significant part on extra-Biblical evidence (Acts 15). Paul and Barnabas’ testimony at the Council was based on experience — “the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them” (Acts 15:12) — and the Council’s final decision was authorized by the immediate work of the Spirit: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements….” (Acts 15:28.

    So you see, scripture itself provides the pattern for recognizing tradition and experience as sources of authority. We could go into the wisdom literature and talk about reason as well.

    Again, to be clear: scripture as reflecting all the perfections ascribed to it and seen in it by the Church, yes!; scripture as absolutely necessary and the norming norm to which we must ever and again return, yes!; scripture as purifying and testing what we think is good reason or good experience or good tradition — yes!; a positivistic / Biblicist account of sola scriptura — no, it just doesn’t work even on its own terms.

  • Randall

    Dopberbeck, you make a much needed point in #32, even the examples of faithful custodians of faith given in accounts in scripture should have been all the antidote subsequent generations needed to protect us from falling into the trap of turning a book into the idol we make it.

    Jesus and the apostles weren’t encouraging making an idol of written words, the pharisee tendency in their contemporaries already did that. The exhortation to listen to God is given to encourage listening to scripture, experience, pattern of teaching given to church by apostles, and the convicting presence of the Holy Spirit. Trying to ignore or diminish ANY of the avenues as a channel that God speaks through is an error should just won’t repent of.

    Pretending that we can read the Bible without influence of our experiences, tradition, reason, or the Spirit’s influence is just that, pretending.

    We all have to and are free to admit it, the danger is when we deny that we have to, that’s self deception.

  • Dave,

    “I didn’t quite say there were other sources “equal” to scripture; I said scripture is the norma normans non normata.”

    Bravo! Scripture must be the final arbiter (2 Cor. 10:4-5). And I also agree that all truth should be in harmony – Scripture with reason and experience – although we might have trouble reconciling it all.

    However, the injunction against adding to the Word (another authoritative source on par with the Word) is not just Mosaic. It is also found in the NT (Rev. 22:18-19), reflecting the fact that the NT writers regarded their own Word as supreme along with the rest of Scripture.

    Thanks for your patience!

  • I agree with comment above: ‘ethics cannot exist without a doctrine’. The ethics of Scripture invariably arise from doctrine – and are made obselete by a doctrine (ie not under law).