“Reformed Biblicism”: Reply to James White

“Reformed Biblicism”: Reply to James White August 17, 2022

This is a point-by-point response to Bishop “Dr.” [???] James White’s article, “Reformed Biblicism” (7-6-22). His words will be in blue.

*****

While going over Calvin’s rebuttal of Sadoleto’s letter from 1539, I read a paragraph where Calvin held Sadoleto’s argument to a biblical standard. Calvin was a scholar of the early church.

I wish he had cited which part. I don’t feel like going through the whole book that I have, to find it.

He cites from patristic sources regularly. He read widely in what was available to him in his day.

Yes, and he regularly distorts what they taught and pretends that they were more [proto-] “Protestant” than Catholic.

And yet he gave us an example of what it means to know history, to know what those before us have said, and yet to hold their views up to Scripture as the final test of truth.

That is, of course, according to Calvin, as the final arbiter (in effect, a “super-pope”) of the particulars of this scriptural truth: over against the entire prior tradition and teaching of the Church fathers en masse if needs be. Yet he is blind to the fact of how supremely arrogant and erroneous in outlook this is.

I referred to his stand as “Reformed Biblicism,” and proclaimed myself a Reformed Biblicist, seeking to be faithful to that important concept.

I refer to it as standard sola Scriptura Protestantism, with all of the manifest glaring and anti-biblical holes entailed (see, for example, my book, 100 Biblical Arguments Against Sola Scriptura).

I do not believe Calvin was the first, nor do I pretend that everyone in the past in whom I would see a commitment to a proper, Scripturally defined and historically knowledgeable biblicism, has practiced their craft with complete consistency.

Like, of course, Bishop White (in his chronological snobbery) claims to do . . .

But I believe a very strong and balanced case can be made for Calvin’s stand in 1539, and the one we must take today as well.

For starters, Calvin thought that the Bible taught sacramental infant baptism. Bishop White is equally convinced that it teaches purely symbolic, non-sacramental adult “believer’s” baptism. Which one is right? More importantly and to the present point: how do we determine who is right? According to the vast consensus of the fathers, John Calvin is more correct, though insofar as he also denied baptismal regeneration, he also departed from the patristic view. Calvin himself consented to the drowning of Anabaptists as seditious heretics. So he quite possibly would have consented to drown Bishop White, whereas I, as a Catholic, would merely be banished from his territory.

Already, then, we see that this “Bible as the final arbiter sans an infallible Church and Tradition” position breaks down as soon as two Protestants disagree.  As Jews say about themselves, so it is with Protestants. If you get two of them together, they will have three different opinions on any given doctrine.

Please allow me to very briefly outline the position.

It starts with the highest view of Scripture. The Bible is theopneustos. Nothing else is. Therefore, it is utterly unique.

It is unique, as an inspired, “God-breathed”, infallible revelation. No one disagrees with that.

It is unique in its origin, in its nature, in its effects, in its purpose, and in its consistency.

Yes, but none of that logically or biblically requires sola Scriptura: the view that the Bible is the only infallible norm and authority, and formally sufficient in and of itself to function as the rule of faith.

It is intended to be a sufficient guide to Christ’s body, the Church.

It itself never teaches that. It’s simply man-made, late-arriving, arbitrary Protestant traditions of men.

It is intended to be seen as God’s very speech, and it has authority for all men, no matter their spiritual state.

That’s true, but again, not germane to the debate over the truthfulness of sola Scriptura.

The Bible then teaches us that Christ has established His Church, His body, and that the Word is intended to be central to the teaching and proclamation that defines that body.

The Bible also teaches that the Church is infallible: at the council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) and in 1 Timothy 3:15. Already, then, the Bible alone has refuted the false doctrine of sola Scriptura.

Since we have Christ’s promise to build His church, we can expect the continued ministry of the Holy Spirit amongst His people, preserving and protecting them down through history.

Absolutely. And this is most perfectly accomplished in the Holy Spirit’s unique guidance of the Church that Jesus Christ established with Peter as its first leader: the historic Catholic Church, headed by the popes (successors of Peter) in Rome.

We do not have to re-invent the wheel with each generation. We can learn much from those who came before us.

Exactly! Yet Protestants continue to do exactly that. It’s sad, foolish, and so unnecessary. As G. K. Chesterton noted: “tradition is the democracy of the dead.” It’s an acknowledgment that folks who lived before our own time learned and gained spiritual and theological insights, too.

However, we learn both positively and negatively. Their words do not become equal with Scripture, nor the lens through which we are to read Scripture, either. 

The first thing is true; the second is partially false. True apostolic tradition is indeed an interpretive guide to Scripture. The accumulated exegetical and hermeneutical wisdom of almost 2,000 years of Christian history is very rich, and many things have been long since determined. It’s our task to tie into that tradition and align our views with it.

We learn from their successes as well as their failures. We see that they often had great insights, but at the same time, were blinded by their conflicts and prejudices.

And that’s true of us today, too. There is such a thing as received, true, apostolic tradition, which has determined what is orthodox and what isn’t. Like Bishop White said, we have no need to invent the wheel in each new generation. We already know from our received past heritage what is true and untrue in most theological matters. This received tradition is precisely what can cut through our ignorance and prejudices and quite fallible and imperfect predispositions.

We recognize that the tendency in the past has been for the church to become her own authority,

It’s not her “own” authority; it’s established by Jesus Christ and scriptural sanction and instruction.

erecting unbiblical structures of authority that limit the corrective work of the Word and Spirit in her midst.

Yes, like the grotesque, tragi-comic spectacle of denominationalism, which nowhere appears in Holy Scripture, and “super-popes” like Calvin and Luther who ridiculously pretend to know more than all the wise figures in the history of the Church before them. They sit there and judge them all, and make their own views in effect “dogma” for their followers.

Often tradition has been elevated to a position of having equal authority with Scripture, being seen as a necessary possession without which Scripture actually becomes a dangerous thing.

Since Scripture grants it this position, there is nothing wrong with it. To the contrary, it is biblically required. Apostolic tradition and the Bible are always in harmony with each other. They do not and cannot contradict. It’s individualistic, sectarian interpretations of Scripture, disconnected from past Christian history that are truly the dangerous things.

We can read the interpretations of those who have gone before us and learn much, while at the same time recognizing fundamental problems. For example, the rise of monasticism led to traditions developing that impacted the interpretation of Scripture literally for centuries. We are under no compulsion to embrace traditional readings that were simply repeated over and over again when it is clear that they were originally based in misunderstandings.

We agree. The many novel errors of Protestantism are one of these misunderstandings that we need to scrutinize and examine (as I am presently doing).

Creeds and confessions are important monuments in the history of the gospel’s progress in the world. But we must remember that the majority of these come from a small portion of that expansion, primarily from Europe and Asia Minor. Hence, they are focused upon the theological questions prevalent there, and use the language of those cultures. We often forget that there is a whole, big world with many more languages and cultures out there.

Indeed.

Creeds and confessions are secondary documents; indeed, we might say creeds are secondary and confessions tertiary, as they are often derived from creedal statements. Creeds are few, and ancient, confessions are many, and often more modern.

Protestants give them a degree of authority, and lip service is given to them, but in the final analysis, the individual is completely free to determine for himself what is true and false in theology: just as Calvin and Luther, Zwingli, Henry VIII, Bullinger, Bucer, Menno Simons, and the Anabaptists did.

Both are dependent for their authority upon their fidelity to that which is ontologically superior to them; that is, their authority is derivative from Scripture for they are, by their nature, human, and fallible. They are not theopneustos.

Yes, and because of that, the question becomes: “who is it that determines what is true and false — and binding upon believers — in these creeds and confessions?” It’s simply the same problem as with authoritative scriptural interpretation: merely one step removed. In the end, interpretation is necessary, or else we have more divisions and likely more denominations. And this interpretation can always in theory come down to each individual Protestant, as “his own pope.”

No Protestant can deny that, because this was the very founding principle or presupposition or premise upon which Luther and Calvin operated, and began the whole thing (Protestantism, based on “private judgment”). This is what is always ignored in analyses like White’s present one. It’s the elephant in the room or the naked emperor, as it were. He doesn’t mention it, so I have to bring up the perfectly obvious dilemma and contradiction at the heart of the Protestant rule of faith.

This observation should not be novel or surprising to any Protestant. In what might be seen as the older equivalent of the Declaration of Independence, Luther said in his concluding statement before the Emperor at the Diet of Worms:

Since your most serene majesty and your highnesses require of me a simple, clear, and direct answer, I will give one, and it is this: I cannot submit my faith either to the pope or to the council, because it is clear that they have fallen into error and even into inconsistency with themselves. If, then, I am not convinced by proof from Holy Scripture, or by cogent reasons, if I am not satisfied by the very text I have cited, and if my judgment is not in this way brought into subjection to God’s word, I neither can nor will retract anything; for it cannot be either safe or honest for a Christian to speak against his conscience. Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen.

Yes he did (though the last section is not certain). This perfectly proves what I have been contending above. Luther “knows” more than the entire history of the Church preceding him. It doesn’t follow that he did in fact reject all of previous tradition. He maintained much of it. But theoretically or abstractly, he was always at liberty to reject yet more of the existing tradition. Why and how?  Well, like he said, because he thinks “pope . . . [and] council have fallen into error and even into inconsistency.”

Luther (or any Protestant individual) determine where these errors have occurred. But the obvious error shot through all this is that Luther assumed he was right and infallible (and by extension all Protestants have that prerogative). Who checks his arbitrarily self-proclaimed “authority” (or any Protestant’s “authority”) with Scripture? Well, as it turned out, Zwingli, Calvin, and the Anabaptists all disagreed with him on a host of issues, as did even his successor, Philip Melanchthon, who soon departed from the view of the Holy Eucharist that confession Lutheranism held.

Bottom line: in this mentality: historic councils and popes could be in error, but apparently Luther and Calvin cannot: even though they and the myriad Protestant sects after them contradict each other all over the place. In a sense, I am actually acting like a good Protestant, in correcting White and standard Protestant sola Scriptura with both Scripture and tradition / history.

Popes and councils have erred and have even contradicted each other.

We deny this insofar as is concerned their decrees that are infallible (not all parts of councils or papal decrees are). Both possess the gift of infallibility: granted by God.

Was Luther wrong?

Partially.

No, he was assuredly right.

Partially. We Catholics determine where he was right and wrong, based on Scripture, Church teaching, and apostolic tradition.

And how do we know when their statements and teachings are contradictory to the truth? Luther answers: subjection to God’s word.

And then of course, Protestants disagree in literally thousands of ways, in interpreting this revelation of Scripture that all agree is inspired and infallible.

There is surely nothing new about such a stance for those who are Reformed.

Today Reformed biblicism is being mocked and derided through the use of straw-man misrepresentation, and that by believing, confessional men. Let’s lay to rest the straw-men so actual progress can be made between men of good faith who will honestly seek to represent the issues with integrity.

Sure; and let’s also (for once) grapple with Protestantism’s and sola Scriptura‘s serious internal problems as noted above.

It is said we are pretending the Bible fell down out of heaven three days ago, i.e., we reject the reality that there are generations of interpreters who have come before us. FALSE. Ancient writings and modern commentaries can all be helpful and should be consulted when dealing with the Biblical text, not because they hold some traditional authority, or together form some Great Tradition (the amount of contradiction and inconsistency precludes such banal representations), but because we recognize that the Spirit of God has been active from the beginning, and hence, we can be benefitted by such study and reference. But, just as the Spirit’s work does not make us infallible, we can see errors in those who have gone before us.

Exactly! In Protestantism, the individual determines where those errors occur (with massive internal disagreement). In Catholicism, bound by very strict rules of procedure, the Church does, in strict accordance with received apostolic tradition.

We can see that traditions have become popular in the past that have corrupted understandings for literally centuries, as noted earlier (views of women, for example, or especially views related to papal texts and papal authority, for another).

And including the myriad of false teachings necessarily present in various forms of Protestantism (since the presence of contradictions means that at least one of the parties must necessarily be wrong).

The Second Nicene Council gives a glorious example of pure and utter error determining the outcome of the council’s decrees.

Bishop White is referring to its espousal of religious images. Of course it was right, because that is the biblical position, as I have shown in many articles.

Next, we are told that to be a biblicist is to believe it is just you and your Bible under a tree, each person a tabula rasa, starting from scratch each and every day. FALSE.

No; TRUE. In theory, any and every Protestant can (and too often does) do exactly that, just as Luther and Calvin and all of the other “reformers” did. They took it upon themselves to determine true and false doctrine.

There is nothing in being a Reformed biblicist that requires one to ignore everything the Spirit has provided to us in the form of past generations, commentaries, multiple translations, community interaction, etc.

That’s right. It’s not required, but it’s always theoretically possible to do, given the founding principles of Protestantism. It has to be that way, because in the end, either an official “church” or an individual has to figure out who and what in the past was in error. There are only so many choices.

None of these things, however, can be elevated to a point of equality with, or interpretative control over, Scripture.

Nor can the atomistic individual like Bishop White do so.

We are told to be a Reformed biblicist is to reject creeds and confessions. Every man become his own Pope! FALSE.

TRUE in an ultimate or logically reductive sense; as explained over and over above.

It is to reject the elevation of creeds and confessions to the level of Scripture, yes. It is to agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment of the LBCF at 1:10:

The supreme judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Scripture delivered by the Spirit, into which Scripture so delivered, our faith is finally resolved.

Of course. We agree! But the question becomes: who decrees for all what this Scripture truly teaches on any given topic?

That means creeds and confessions are to be subject to the Scripture.

As determined by one or a number of like-minded Protestants . . . to which we reply: why are they considered authoritative? On what basis?

But, we are told that this means we get to change our doctrine at our every whim, at the drop of a hat! FALSE. Such does not follow at all. Recognition of the inferior nature of creeds and confessions to Scripture does not require us to believe that those who have gone before were naive or ignorant and hence missed the most central realities of the Christian faith, leaving it all up to us today to fix it all! This is an absurd charge. At the same time, to be a Reformed biblicist is to insist that the content of the Christian faith has been “once for all delivered to the saints” so that, in the words of the LBCF in 1:7, “All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of ordinary means, may attain to a sufficient understanding of them.” So, a Reformed biblicist can recognize development of theological language over time, in, say, how the questions related to Christology developed after the Council of Nicea up and through that of Chalcedon, without investing in those councils, or the interpretations of the key writers, East and West, a parallel authority to Scripture. Even the greatest of the writers of the past must be held to the standard of Scriptural consistency and, when they went beyond those bounds, the Reformed biblicist does not find any compulsion in following them in their speculations.

Exactly! Truth is determined by one or a number of like-minded Protestants . . . to which we reply: why are they considered authoritative? On what basis?

Hence, the Reformed biblicist is simply allowing Scripture to be God-breathed, the Spirit to be accomplishing His purposes in the Church, those of the past to speak and testify to the truth (and to their own errors and traditions), and the useful and beneficial gifts of God in commentaries, textual resources, etc., to bless us in the present. Always the biblicist believes:

The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man or church, but wholly upon God (who is truth itself), the author thereof; therefore it is to be received because it is the Word of God (LBCF 1:4).

Unfortunately, God doesn’t always provide the full and entire and particular interpretation of Holy Scripture. Human beings must do that. The disagreement on the rule of faith between Catholics and Protestants is alive and well. I have done my best to outline some of the important issues that Protestants have to resolve and the thorny internal difficulties in their system.

***

Practical Matters: Perhaps some of my 4,000+ free online articles (the most comprehensive “one-stop” Catholic apologetics site) or fifty books have helped you (by God’s grace) to decide to become Catholic or to return to the Church, or better understand some doctrines and why we believe them.

Or you may believe my work is worthy to support for the purpose of apologetics and evangelism in general. If so, please seriously consider a much-needed financial contribution. I’m always in need of more funds: especially monthly support. “The laborer is worthy of his wages” (1 Tim 5:18, NKJV). 1 December 2021 was my 20th anniversary as a full-time Catholic apologist, and February 2022 marked the 25th anniversary of my blog.

PayPal donations are the easiest: just send to my email address: apologistdave@gmail.com. You’ll see the term “Catholic Used Book Service”, which is my old side-business. To learn about the different methods of contributing, including 100% tax deduction, etc., see my page: About Catholic Apologist Dave Armstrong / Donation InformationThanks a million from the bottom of my heart!

***

Summary: James White explains “Reformed biblicism” (sola Scriptura dressed up in a new term). I note the insuperable internal logical and biblical problems with sola Scriptura.

"I Totally agree Calvinists are a minority. Their trick is they infiltrate every avenue to ..."

Calvinism: Tiny Minority Historically & Demographically
"As I wrote in the paper:In several other instances, men are also bowed down to ..."

Bible on the Veneration of Angels ..."
"Angels are royal princes so of course they are worthy of veneration and bowing down ..."

Bible on the Veneration of Angels ..."
"Yes, because it's two different positions. Infallibility is a protection from error when one is ..."

Reply to Lucas Banzoli: 2 Tim ..."

Browse Our Archives

Close Ad