“Moses’ Seat” & Tradition #4 (vs. James White)

“Moses’ Seat” & Tradition #4 (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.


I am now replying to White’s Part III.

We continue reviewing Dave Armstrong’s comments on Matthew 23. He continues with a citation from my book, The Roman Catholic Controversy, p. 101, on p. 47 of The Catholic Verses. However, he does not provide some key elements of the material he is citing, so I will provide the paragraph, but will bold what was skipped, or not included, in the citation:

This appears to be the tired old charge of citing out of context. Not every instance of partial citation is incorrect or out-of-context citation. But it is one of the oldest rhetorical tricks in the book. Let’s see if White can make a positive case that I have misrepresented him at all or neglected “key elements” in his presentation. It is all the more comic and ironic, that a man who habitually ignores his opponents’ arguments and skips over huge amounts of the others’ words to rush to what he wishes to express (the present exchange is no exception to that rule), would nitpick about someone not citing absolutely every one of his words. Here is his citation, as he wishes it to be:

Indeed, the Lord’s unwillingness to become an “ecclesiastical rebel” is in perfect harmony with the Scriptural teaching on the subject of authority in the church. There was nothing in the tradition of having someone read from the Scriptures while sitting on Moses’ seat that was in conflict with the Scriptures, and hence, unlike the corban rule which we saw earlier in Matthew 15, Jesus does not reject this traditional aspect of Jewish synagogue worship. He does not insist upon anarchy in worship in the synagogue anymore than His apostle Paul would allow for it in the worship of the church at Corinth. It is quite proper to listen to and obey the words of the one who reads from the Law or the Prophets, for one is not hearing a man speaking in such a situation, but is listening to the very words of God.

Now, it is a measure of Armstrong’s understanding of the issues involved in exegesis that he responds in these words:

This is true as far as it goes, but it is essentially a non sequitur and amounts to a “reading into,” or eisegesis of the passage (which is ironic, because now White plays the role of “a man speaking” and distorting “the very words of God”).

And he is merely assuming what he is trying to prove, which is no logical argument; it’s a fallacy.

He then repeats the text, as if this somehow proves his point.

The point was that the text was more general than white’s arbitrary restriction of it, in order to conform to the arbitrary and unbiblical notion of sola Scriptura, and the rejection of Tradition as understood by the Church throughout the centuries.

Now I am going to try to read Armstrong’s work in the most positive light and assume that the next few pages, as they have paragraphs starting with “first” and “second” and so on, are his attempt to substantiate the assertion that my words are reading into the text something that is not there.

How thoughtful of him . . . imagine the novelty of granting one’s opponent the courtesy of acknowledging that he means what he obviously means.

Of course, to do this, he will have to do something more than just assume his own reading is exegetically sound. He will have to provide solid, positive argumentation.

That’s right, and this works both ways, doesn’t it?

Let’s see how well he fares. His first paragraph reads:

First, it should be noted that nowhere in the actual text is the notion that the Pharisees are only reading the Old Testament Scripture when sitting on Moses’ seat. It is an assumption gratuitously smuggled in from a presupposed position of sola Scriptura.

Quite true, but does it not likewise follow that it is a gratuitous assumption that Jesus is actually telling His disciples to embrace extra-biblical traditions that parallel Rome’s—an assumption smuggled in from a presupposed position of sola ecclesia?

First of all, “sola ecclesia” is a false description of the Catholic system of authority. This is not a Catholic term (whereas sola Scriptura is the Protestant;’s own terminology for his principle). We don’t believe in “Church alone.” We believe in the “three-legged stool” of Bible, Church, and Tradition, which is quite a different concept indeed. But White seems to think that he succeeds in rational argument by caricaturing opposing positions. The implicit reasoning seems to be: “if you don’t accept Bible Alone, you must believe in Church alone,” as if there are not other possible positions besides this stark contrast: one extreme to another.

Secondly, I agree that everyone has presuppositions that they bring to the table. But the presuppositions have to be tested to see if they can stand up, and if they are harmonious with biblical teaching. Whether “extra-biblical traditions” are involved remains to be proven; that’s what our discussion is largely about. White’s task, however, in line with his own beliefs, is to prove that they are definitely not involved, and he can’t do that by simply assuming without argument his system of sola Scriptura, which rules out such an eventuality beforehand. Thus far, he has given no one any reason to believe that such traditions are absolutely absent in the New Testament accounts under consideration.

Thirdly, it should be noted that in my book, I am critiquing White’s attempt to deny that extra-biblical Tradition could possibly be in play in these passages. All I have to do is cast doubt on his “proofs” along these lines, and show that they are not adequate to their task. Technically (i.e., logically), I don’t even have to prove that such traditions are there, in order to refute his argument, because his reasoning is somewhat similar to the following scenario:

1. James says he can prove that there are no children in the schoolyard from 2 to 3 PM.
2. His proof is that the school allows children there only from 12 to 1 PM.
3. Therefore, no children are there from 2 to 3.

Does this prove that no children are there from 2 to 3? Of course not. All it proves (assuming the documented truthfulness of #2) is that if children are there from 2 to 3, that it is against school rules. It doesn’t prove that no children are there, because it has simply assumed what it is trying to prove, by appeal to a rule which may or may not be broken in fact or actuality. It doesn’t rest upon actual observation of the schoolyard. Likewise, a critic of the argument does not have to prove that a child was actually there from 2 to 3, to disprove the above argument, because it is fallacious of its own accord.

The analogy to the present case are as follows:

children = extra-biblical traditions
schoolyard = Christianity
school rules concerning what is permitted = sola Scriptura
conclusion (#3) = presupposed, unproven, axiomatic, dogmatic assertions of Protestantism with regard to what is permitted and not permitted in Christianity

All this being the case, both sides have to strive to make a plausible biblical case for their own position. Since the Bible is the authority both sides agree upon, it is the “field” where the argument can succeed, using the agree-upon standard of Divine Revelation.

Remember, the Corban rule of Matthew 15, which Jesus specifically rejected on the basis of Scripture, was one of the Pharisees’ favorite “Mosaic traditions,” claiming divine authority. Was Jesus contradicting Himself? Surely not. And so the point clearly is, what understanding of the text is consistent with Jesus’ own practices when faced with such things as the Corban rule elsewhere?

This doesn’t prove White’s contentions of “no extra-biblical traditions” at all, because to prove that Jesus opposed one tradition doesn’t say anything at all about whether He opposed all such traditions. He Himself made this distinction clear in Mark 7:3-9. St. Paul also makes it abundantly clear that there is a legitimate tradition and a false tradition of men. So White can’t simply assume that the “approved” category of tradition is nonexistent. This is exceedingly weak reasoning; in fact, it proves nothing whatsoever.

Secondly, the specific example of the Corban rule (Matthew 15:5) is actually simply another proof that Jesus did not reject all tradition (which is the issue at hand), and this is quite simple to demonstrate. He was rebuking this particular Pharisaical tradition as a corruption of the larger tradition of proper sacrifice, which He did not abrogate at all; quite the contrary: He continued to participate in the old sacrificial system. Thus, The New Bible Dictionary (edited by J. D. Douglass, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1962) states:

The Old Testament sacrifices . . . were still being offered during practically the whole period of the composition of the New . . . Important maxims are t be found in Mt. 5:23-24, 12:3-5 and parallels 17:24-27, 23:16-20; 1 Cor. 9:13-14. it is noteworthy that our Lord has sacrifice offered for Him or offers it Himself at His presentation in the Temple, at His last Passover, and presumably on those other occasions when He went up to Jerusalem for the feasts. The practice of the apostles in Acts removes all ground from the opinion that after the sacrifice of Christ the worship of the Jewish Temple is to be regarded as an abomination to God. We find them frequenting the Temple, and Paul himself goes up to Jerusalem for Pentecost, and on that occasion offers the sacrifices (which included sin-offerings) for the interruption of vows (Acts 21; cf. Nu. 6:10-12). (p. 1122 in article, “Sacrifice and Offering”)

I thought the reader might appreciate a little balance being gained as to whether Jesus opposed all tradition. White wants to mention only the times where Jesus rejected one particular tradition. It’s important to get the whole New Testament picture and not just one small part of it, ignoring the rest.

Is it Armstrong’s, or that which sees this as the beginning of the condemnation of the Pharisees that takes up the rest of Matthew 23, and hence is actually restricting the authority of the Pharisees?

Matthew 23 is not necessarily about “restricting the authority of the Pharisees” at all. It is about Pharisaical hypocrisy, as anyone who knows the passage at all, is well aware, and also about their legalistic corruptions of the legitimate Mosaic Law (which is what Jesus found hypocritical). But condemning hypocrisy and corruption is not the same as condemning the thing that they are being hypocritical about and distorting.

The fact remains (and it is obvious in the New Testament) that much of the Pharisaical tradition was retained by Christianity (as sanctioned by our Lord Jesus and St. Paul). I wrote about this in my second published book: More Biblical Evidence for Catholicism:


Many people do not realize that Christianity was derived in many ways from the Pharisaical tradition of Judaism. It was really the only viable option in the Judaism of that era. Since Jesus often excoriated the Pharisees for hypocrisy and excessive legalism, some assume that He was condemning the whole ball of wax. But this is throwing the baby out with the bath water. Likewise, the Apostle Paul, when referring to his Pharisaical background doesn’t condemn Pharisaism per se.

The Sadducees, on the other hand, were much more “heretical.” They rejected the future resurrection and the soul, the afterlife, rewards and retribution, demons and angels, and predestinarianism. Christian Pharisees are referred to in Acts 15:5 and Philippians 3:5, but never Christian Sadducees. The Sadducees’ following was found mainly in the upper classes, and was almost non-existent among the common people.

The Sadducees also rejected all ‘oral Torah,’ — the traditional interpretation of the written that was of central importance in rabbinic Judaism. So we can summarize as follows:

a) The Sadducees were obviously the elitist “liberals” and “heterodox” amongst the Jews of their time.

b) But the Sadducees were also the sola Scripturists of their time.

c) Christianity adopted wholesale the very “postbiblical” doctrines which the Sadducees rejected and which the Pharisees accepted: resurrection, belief in angels and spirits, the soul, the afterlife, eternal reward or damnation, and the belief in angels and demons.
d) But these doctrines were notable for their marked development after the biblical Old Testament Canon was complete, especially in Jewish apocalyptic literature, part of Jewish codified oral tradition.

e) We’ve seen how — if a choice is to be made — both Jesus and Paul were squarely in the “Pharisaical camp,” over against the Sadducees.

f) We also saw earlier how Jesus and the New Testament writers cite approvingly many tenets of Jewish oral (later talmudic and rabbinic) tradition, according to the Pharisaic outlook.

Ergo) The above facts constitute one more “nail in the coffin” of the theory that either the Old Testament Jews or the early Church were guided by the principle of sola Scriptura. The only party which believed thusly were the Sadducees, who were heterodox according to traditional Judaism, despised by the common people, and restricted to the privileged classes only.

The Pharisees (despite their corruptions and excesses) were the mainstream, and the early Church adopted their outlook with regard to eschatology, anthropology, and angelology, and the necessity and benefit of binding oral tradition and ongoing ecclesiastical authority for the purpose (especially) of interpreting Holy Scripture.

I have more material along these lines, included in my article, Rabbinic Credentials of Jesus and St. Paul:

Jesus Himself followed the Pharisaical tradition, as argued by Asher Finkel in his book The Pharisees and the Teacher of Nazareth (Cologne: E. J. Brill, 1964). He adopted the Pharisaical stand on controversial issues (Matthew 5:18-19, Luke 16:17), accepted the oral tradition of the academies, observed the proper mealtime procedures (Mark 6:56, Matthew 14:36) and the Sabbath, and priestly regulations (Matthew 8:4, Mark 1:44, Luke 5:4). This author argues that Jesus’condemnations were directed towards the Pharisees of the school of Shammai, whereas Jesus was closer to the school of Hillel.

The Encyclopedia Judaica (Jerusalem: 1971) backs up this contention, in its entry “Jesus” (v. 10, 10):

In general, Jesus’ polemical sayings against the Pharisees were far meeker than the Essene attacks and not sharper than similar utterances in the talmudic sources.

This source contends that Jesus’ beliefs and way of life were closer to the Pharisees than to the Essenes, though He was similar to them in many respects also(poverty, humility, purity of heart, simplicity, etc.).

The answer is clear. If Armstrong is going to claim an exegetical basis for Rome’s position, he cannot simply assume it. So far, that is all he is doing.

I provided more than enough of that, in my (admittedly biased) opinion, to cast significant doubt on White’s argument, in the book. Even if I didn’t provide sufficient exegetical argument in the book, I certainly have added much biblical cross-referencing and relevant data in this paper (far more than White’s brief, passing references, such as to the Corban rule), which White would have to deal with, if he thinks his argument can withstand the scrutiny of proper examination. But it is almost a certainty that this dialogue will never get to the stage of a second round, judging by virtually all past experience with White for ten years. As soon as the discussion gets really interesting and biblical and logical, he is no longer interested, and either flees altogether or becomes insulting. I don’t blame him, since he has such a weak and insubstantial case, in the present instance.

In any event, I submit that I have provided far more biblical support for my position than White has for his, at least as far as we have gotten. Perhaps he’ll produce a “golden bullet” in subsequent installments. I keep waiting for at least an attempt, but it never comes . . .

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