“Moses’ Seat” & Tradition #3 (vs. James White)

“Moses’ Seat” & Tradition #3 (vs. James White) March 17, 2017
Moses with the Ten Commandments (1648), by Philippe de Champaigne (1602-1674) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


[see all the other installments of this multi-part debate on my James White web page: second section]


Mr. White’s words will be in blue; my former words in green.


In the previous installment of this series I provided an introduction and the comments I made in The Roman Catholic Controversy regarding the use of Matthew 23:1-3 by Roman Catholic apologists. Let’s make sure we understand what is required of the Roman Catholic apologist in order to substantiate their claims. First, there needs to be an identifiable oral tradition regarding “Moses’ Seat” that is passed down outside of Scripture. This tradition must grant to the scribes and Pharisees some kind of authority that is not given in Scripture itself,

It’s not necessary that it is not in Scripture; only that it is in harmony with Scripture, and something alongside it, which is not opposed to it, and is, to the contrary, sanctioned by it.

and Jesus must be making reference to this tradition, and the resultant authority, and binding His followers thereto. Is that what is going on in Matthew 23?

Something very un-Protestant is “going on” here! I believe that at the very least it is a difficulty, or difficult to explain, within a Protestant position.

Let’s see if Dave Armstrong can provide a positive defense or, will he do what most of the rest of his compatriots do: hope that an attack upon the text will be sufficient to confuse their followers into thinking they have actually provided a meaningful defense of their claims.

Interesting cynical touch . . . Yes, I and “most of the rest of” my “compatriots” sit around at night dreaming up fanciful ways that we can “attack” the biblical text, so as to confuse and mislead our “followers.” Is that really what White thinks motivates me and other Catholic apologists and commentators? Apparently so, or he wouldn’t have written such a ludicrous thing. I don’t (for what it’s worth) reciprocate the cynicism. I think White (like most devoted Bible students) sincerely believes that he is interpreting the passage to the best of his abilities, and is trying his best to respect it and let it speak for itself. I think he’s dead wrong in his opinion, but I don’t have to attack his very motivations and modus operandi with uncharitable speculations, putting the worst spin on everything he does. That’s a major difference between Mr. White and I, and this hostile predisposition will no doubt color his comments throughout (just as I noted in my book with regard to historic Protestant exegesis).

Armstrong begins:

Jesus teaches that the scribes and Pharisees have a legitimate, binding authority, based on Moses’ seat, which phrase (or idea) cannot be found anywhere in the Old Testament. It is found in the (originally oral) Mishna, where a sort of teaching succession from Moses on down is taught. Thus, apostolic succession, whereby the Catholic Church, in its priests and bishops and popes, claims to be merely the custodian of an inherited apostolic Tradition, is also prefigured by Jewish oral tradition, as approved (at least partially) by Jesus himself.

So we see that Armstrong takes “the whole enchilada,” so to speak, and sets the highest bar possible, even “prefiguring” Roman apostolic Tradition in the Jewish form, though, he seems to allow a small out for himself with the parenthetic statement, “at least partially.” It is hard to know what this refers to at this point.

Mr. White, being the Bible scholar and exegete that he is, is certainly not unfamiliar with the notion of typology in Holy Scripture (though you’d never know that, reading the above). The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia ([ISBE] a Protestant work, as will be all sources that I cite, unless indicated otherwise: edited by James Orr, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1956), discusses biblical “types”:

The Bible furnishes abundant evidence of the presence of types and of typical instruction in the Sacred Word. The NT attests this fact. It takes up a large number of persons and things and events of former dispensations, and it treats them as adumbrations and prophecies of the future. A generation ago a widespread interest in the study of typology prevailed . . .

. . . A type . . . must be a true picture of the person or the thing it represents or prefigures . . . A type always prefigures something future. A Scriptural type and predictive prophecy are in substance the same, differing only in form. This fact distinguishes between a symbol and a type. A symbol may represent a thing of the present or of the past as well as of the future, e.g., the symbols in the Lord’s supper. A type always looks to the future; an element of prediction must necessarily be in it. (Vol. 5, p. 3029)

Presbyterian pastor and writer Peter J. Leithart, writing in First Things (November 1997, 12-13), noted that modern evangelicals tend to reject typology (note that the ISBE above stated that things were different a mere “generation ago”):

Modern scholarship has approached the Old Testament in a very different manner. Rejecting typology as fanciful and unscientific, many theologians have treated the Old Testament as a historical document with little or no religious significance for the Church.

. . . For all their real differences in approach to the Bible, evangelicals are at one with Protestant modernism in their rejection of typology and, frequently enough, in their belief that Christianity is more or less purely internal, a religion of unmediated individual contact with God.

But the Church Fathers interpreted the Bible quite differently, Leithart informs us, noting:

. . . the typological exegesis of the Bible practiced by patristic and medieval theologians. Typological interpretation assumes that events and institutions of the Old Testament present (to use Augustine’s terminology) “latent” pictures of Christ, and the Christ to whom the Old Testament testifies is the totus Christus: Head and Body, Jesus and his Church. In this, the fathers and medieval theologians fully agreed with Paul, who wrote that the history of Israel’s wanderings in the wilderness were “things written for our instruction.”

Following the apostolic example, the fathers taught that Israel and “daughter Jerusalem”—and all brides and harlots of Old Testament history—manifest the Church under various guises. . . . the fathers plundered the Old Testament to divine the patterns of history. Because the interpretive path runs from old Israel through Christ to the new Israel, moreover, typology assumes that the New Covenant, like the Old, is concerned with a concrete, historical community.

. . . The typological method—by emphasizing that the Church as a real historical institution and communion was prophesied and typified in the Old Testament—provides theological grounding for the Church’s efforts to discipline the state.

This has to do with historic exegesis (precisely what my book was about). James White is out of touch with the exegesis of the earliest Christians, even with St. Augustine (whom he views very highly indeed, as I could easily prove from his own remarks), and pre-modernist Protestants. Thus, my delving into typology in the course of the extended argument of my book seems something foreign to him. Typology is no novel notion, either for the Fathers or many evangelical commentators through the centuries, but it seems to be for Mr. White.

I can’t help that, but in any event, he is free to argue that some particular interpretation of mine is unreasonable and implausible, according to the usual cross-referencing, systematics, linguistic considerations, etc. That is an unobjectionable method, but dismissing all types and shadows altogether is quite a bit more difficult to do, in light of historic exegesis: both Catholic and Protestant.

Following these claims Armstrong lists five “anomalous facts” for Protestants, other passages he believes likewise refer to “extrabiblical and oral tradition acknowledged by the New Testament writers.” These include 1 Cor. 10:4 and the rock that followed Israel in the wilderness; 1 Pet. 3:19, where Armstrong assumes the passage is drawing from 1 Enoch, together with Jude 14_15 and the citation of 1 Enoch 1:9; Jude 9 and the dispute between Michael and Satan over Moses’ body; 2 Tim. 3:8 and the naming of Jannes and Jambres; James 5:17 and the information that the drought had lasted for three years.

White outlines my argument. I will actually cite it, so readers know exactly what I stated:

Other examples of extrabiblical and oral tradition acknowledged by the New Testament writers include:

* 1 Corinthians 10:4, where St. Paul refers to a rock which “followed” the Jews through the Sinai wilderness. The Old Testament says nothing about such miraculous movement, in the related passages about Moses striking the rock to produce water (Exod. 17:1-7; Num. 20:2-13). Rabbinic tradition, however, does.

* 1 Peter 3:19, where St. Peter describes Christ’s journey to Sheol/Hades (“he went and preached to the spirits in prison“), [and] draws directly from the Jewish apocalyptic book 1 Enoch (12-16). Jude 14-15 directly quotes from 1 Enoch 1:9, and even states that Enoch prophesied.

* Jude 9, which concerns a dispute between Michael the archangel and Satan over Moses’ body, cannot be paralleled in the Old Testament, and appears to be a recounting of an oral Jewish tradition.

* In 2 Timothy 3:8, the reference to Jannes and Jambres cannot be found in the related Old Testament passage (Exod. 7:8 ff.).

* James 5:17 mentions a lack of rain for three years, which is likewise absent from the relevant Old Testament passage in 1 Kings 17. (p. 44)

He concludes his list with these words:

Since Jesus and the Apostles acknowledge authoritative Jewish oral tradition (in so doing, raising some of it literally to the level of written revelation), we are hardly at liberty to assert that it is altogether illegitimate. Jesus attacked corrupt traditions only, not tradition per se, and not all oral tradition. According to a strict sola Scriptura viewpoint, this would be inadmissible, it seems to me. (p. 44)

Immediately the careful reader will note that there seems to be no difference at all in Armstrong’s thinking between “authoritative Jewish oral tradition,” non-authoritative Jewish oral tradition, and any historical story, whether oral or written.

This is highly curious and inexplicable, since in my very act of mentioning “authoritative Jewish tradition,” it follows by simple logic that there must be something to the contrary which I (and anyone) could and would label “non-authoritative Jewish oral tradition,” and indeed, my mention of “corrupt traditions” presupposes this. Yet White accuses me of not making the very distinctions that I clearly made. Go figure . . . this is what happens when the unfortunate tendency to caricature opponents runs head on into simple logic and carefully reading what one’s opponent actually wrote, before immediately dashing off to tear it apart. For in such a rush, what is “refuted” is often not what the opponent actually wrote or believes. And that creates all sorts of problems and weakness in arguments, and holes large enough to drive a truck through.

What “any historical story” is supposed to refer to, is anyone’s guess, since context makes abundantly clear that I was referring exclusively to Jewish tradition.

Likewise, he leaves untouched the issues relating to the citation of Enoch, for surely he knows Enoch as a whole is not canonical, hence, is he actually insisting that only a portion of Enoch contains some kind of authoritative, inspired material?

My argument doesn’t necessitate regarding all such material as “inspired”; only authoritative and true. Remember how I phrased that to which I was referring: “extrabiblical and oral tradition acknowledged by the New Testament writers.” An inspired biblical book might cite any number of non-inspired books as true, insofar as the portion cited is concerned. That’s exactly what happened in Jude 14-15, where 1 Enoch 1:9 is directly quoted (as the footnote for this verse in my Oxford Annotated RSV Bible states), and is described by the apostle as that which Enoch “prophesied.” Whether that counts as “inspired” or not, on that basis, I don’t know, and I’ll leave that technical question for the appropriate scholars to decide.

But it is perfectly reasonable to conclude that what is cited is true, and an instance of true prophecy not different in kind from a prophecy of Jeremiah or Isaiah: whose prophecies are recorded in inspired Old Testament Scripture. And that’s just the point, isn’t it? If Jeremiah’s prophecy is regarded as inspired because it is in the Bible (OT), then Enoch’s must likewise be, because it is in the Bible (NT). Therefore an “extrabiblical tradition” was “acknowledged by the New Testament writers,” and my contention is unassailable. White can only try to minimize the implications of this, and attempt to show that it all fits in perfectly with his Baptist, sola Scriptura conception of authority, but he can’t discount the fact of it, because there it is . . .

All of these passages have sparked a great deal of discussion in both Protestant and Catholic biblical scholarship, but none of that discussion is referenced here. An allegedly “straightforward” reading is all that is noted.

That’s correct. One can’t write about everything all the time, and one chooses what to emphasize, where, and how deeply to delve into the subject matter at hand. What does that have to do with anything? White’s task is to refute what I have presented. Perhaps he does that later, but he hasn’t yet done so, and making non sequitur points like this, doesn’t bring him any closer to the conclusion of his task. If he wants to deal with these passages, then he can make his argument, and I’ll surely respond. One thing at a time . . .

Armstrong moves from here to the specifics of his response to the material in The Roman Catholic Controversy by stating, “I shall quote the heart of his subtle but thoroughly fallacious argument.” He cites the very beginning of the comments, to the point where I note that there is no way to trace this alleged tradition back to Moses, since this refers to an element of synagogue worship that did not come into existence until only a few hundred years prior to the time of Christ. He then writes,

White agrees that the notion is not found in the Old Testament, but maintains that it cannot be traced back to Moses. Yet the Catholic argument here does not rest on whether it can be traced historically to Moses, but on the act that it is not found in the Old Testament. Thus, White concedes a fundamental point of the Catholic argument concerning authority and sola Scriptura.

White skipped over roughly a page of material (mostly my page 45), where I cited the commentator Albert Barnes at length, and also the Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown commentary, and also noted how Jesus distinguished between good and bad traditions. Since we are centering primarily on my critique of his argument, this is not a major concern.

Yet, on the other hand, it can often be observed in White’s replies to Catholics, that he will pick and choose what he wants to respond to, rather than reply to everything (his ignoring of those portions of his opponents’ arguments might reasonably be construed as indicating a possibility that they are difficult for him to answer, since he skipped over them more or less arbitrarily). The passages of NT citing of extrabiblical traditions were not technically related to White’s own presentation, either, but he saw fit to mention them.

While I wish to wait to respond to the full argumentation until after outlining Armstrong’s response, I must point out in passing that “admitting” that Jesus is making reference to a concept that developed during the intertestamental period is hardly relevant to sola scriptura nor is it a concession to a “fundamental point of the Catholic argument.” There is nothing in sola scriptura that requires the NT to be silent about developments during the intertestamental period. There is nothing in the doctrine that requires the Bible to remain silent on the form of synagogue worship. This is simply wishful thinking on Armstrong’s part, once again.

I wasn’t arguing those things; rather, the topic at hand is whether there is an authoritative extrabiblical tradition, acknowledged by Jesus and the apostles. If some parts of those traditions can be cited as true in the NT, then it stands to reason that other parts can be true (and hence, authoritative) without being cited in the NT. White simply assumes without argument that anything which is fully authoritative must be in the Bible. But since that is the issue in dispute, assuming it does no good. It has to be rationally demonstrated, with biblical support. I’ve been providing biblical support for my contentions. But these complex points of consideration will obviously have to wait till White presents his “full” response. I presume it will eventually be forthcoming, since White’s response consisted of eight parts.

Further, unless I misread Armstrong, he saw a “prefigurement” of the Roman position in the Jewish one regarding tradition; yet, the Jews claimed their traditions did, in fact, go back to Moses, and yet here it seems Armstrong is admitting that the Jews could be wrong about the very origin of their traditions, and yet Jesus would still find the tradition binding.

I argued no such (intrinsically nonsensical) thing. White read that into my statements because he didn’t understand them (a sadly common occurrence, as we’ve seen in past installments of this discussion, and will often see again, surely, largely because he vastly underestimates his opponents and considers them much more “ignorant” than they are in fact — see the Introduction for many examples). I was making a logical point, reiterating that the Catholic reply to White’s sola Scriptura arguments does not require proof that Jewish oral traditions go back to Moses; only that some of them were considered authoritative by Jesus and the apostles. For my part, I assume that they do go back to Moses, because that is part of the biblical (and historical) record, too, and the early Christians continued this tradition, over against the quasi-sola Scriptura position of the Sadducees, the “liberals” of their time). But that aspect was not logically required for this particular argument to be effective in its purpose of refutation.

Does it follow that Rome could admit her traditions do not go back to the Apostles but they are still binding? We are not told.

No (now you’ve been told). It was a silly query to begin with.

Next we encounter the following paragraph:

White then cites Protestant Bible scholar Robert Gundry in agreement, to the effect that Jesus was binding Christians to the Pharisaical law, but not “their interpretive traditions.” This passage concerned only “the law itself,” with the “antinomians” in mind. How Gundry arrives at such a conclusion remains to be seen. White’s query about the Catholic interpretation, “Is this sound exegesis?” can just as easily be applied to Gundry’s fine-tuned distinctions that help him avoid any implication of a binding extrabiblical tradition. (pp. 46-47)

One will note that this is at best a partial accounting of the views I noted; but beyond this, there is no meaningful interaction with Gundry’s exegesis. And given that I have worked through a number of attempted arguments made by Armstrong in this book, I believe I can say with some foundation that I do not believe Dave Armstrong understands what he would have to do to provide an exegetical response to Gundry or myself or anyone else. He simply does not understand the field. Writing “Is this sound exegesis?” and then in essence saying, “Well, you too!” is a poor substitute for meaningful exegetical interaction, that’s for certain.

Here we go with more of White’s sadly typical condescension and patronizing of his opponent, leading to lack of argument or no rational argumentation at all. It is “(wishful) meta-analysis” rather than reasoned refutation and a demonstration of exactly how an opponent is in error. Let me briefly illustrate how far this method of “reply” differs from actual dialogue. A non-dialogue, or “mutual monologue” runs as follows:

1. X presents position A with a multitude of biblical proof texts and historical evidences.

2. Y basically ignores or quickly dismisses X’s biblical proof texts and historical evidences for position A with a one-sentence “reply” and proceeds to present position B with a multitude of alternate biblical proof texts and historical evidences.

Or, in a briefer form:

1. A
2. Not-A.

This is (sadly, too often) White’s frequent method. But real dialogue (which is what I seek), proceeds in a very different way:

1. X presents position A with a multitude of biblical proof texts and historical evidences.

2. Y offers alternative and (so he thinks) superior explanations of each of X’s biblical proof-texts and historical evidences, and then presents his own biblical proof texts and historical evidences for position B.

3. X offers alternative and (so he thinks) superior explanations of each of Y’s biblical proof-texts and historical evidences, counter-responds to the critique of his own previously-stated biblical proof texts and historical evidences, and then presents more of his own biblical and historical proofs (if he has any more on the subject).

4. Y again offers alternative explanations of X’s contentions, and/or counter-responds to X’s counter-response (or concedes the argument if position A is superior) . . . Etc.

5. X does the same in turn (if Y is still maintaining his position) and either proceeds or concedes the argument if position B is superior . . . Etc.

This is how the present discussion ought to proceed, if it is to be at all constructive and worthwhile. But will it? Judging from ten years’ past experience with Mr. White, it is highly unlikely, yet there’s always a first time . . . In any event, my method is the second one above; I welcome challenges, and relish arguing for what I think is a superior and true position, rather than ignoring and belittling my opponent as an ignoramus, in over his head, and presenting my positions as a preacher rather than as a disputant or person who provides reasoned argumentation in response to the other.

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