Self-Interpreting Bible & Protestant Chaos (vs. Turretin)

Self-Interpreting Bible & Protestant Chaos (vs. Turretin) August 29, 2022

Including Documentation that St. Basil the Great — Contrary to Turretin’s Claim — Did Not Believe in Sola Scriptura

François Turretin (1623-1687) was a Genevan-Italian Reformed scholastic theologian, earnest defender of the Calvinistic orthodoxy represented by the Synod of Dort, and one of the authors of the Helvetic Consensus (1675). His Institutes of Elenctic Theology (three parts, Geneva, 1679–1685) used the scholastic method. It was a popular textbook; notably at Princeton Theological Seminary, until it was replaced by Charles Hodge‘s Systematic Theology in the late 19th century. Turretin also greatly influenced the Puritans.


I am replying to a portion of a piece from Turretin simply entitled “The Scriptures”: from the website, A Puritan’s Mind ; subsection: “The Supreme Judge of Controversies and the Interpreter of Scripture.”  It’s from Institutes of Elenctic Theology. His words will be in blue.

Question 20: Is Scripture, or God speaking in Scripture, the supreme and infallible judge of controversies and the interpreter of Scripture, rather than the church or the Roman pontifex? Affirmative, against the Roman Catholics.

I. This question is the first and almost only one on whose account all the other controversies concerning Scripture which are discussed have been begun, for the Roman Catholics do not call the authority of Scripture into doubt, or assail its integrity and purity, or deny its perspicuity and perfection for any other reason than to be able to show that it cannot be the judge of controversies, and that it is necessary to resort to the tribunal of the church.

This is a rare accurate and fair description of the Catholic rule of faith from a 17th century Protestant apologist and theologian. For once, the Protestant is aware of what he is arguing against and doesn’t have to caricature and twist it before he begins critiquing. What a breath of fresh air . . .

The question deals only with the ultimate and infallible decision on which it is necessary to stand or fall–whether this lies within Scripture itself as we teach, or with some human being, or assembly made up of human beings, as the Roman Catholics do.

Yes, that is indeed a central and crucial question in dispute between us.

Roman Catholics . . . distinguish the norm and the judge who must make a decision on the basis of Scripture. They do indeed recognize Scripture as norm, but a partial and inadequate one to which unwritten tradition must be added . . . 

We don’t regard it as “inadequate”. It’s materially sufficient for doctrine and salvation in and of itself: as God’s unique inspired revelation. Sacred tradition is also alongside it and in complete harmony with it: “twin fonts of the one divine wellspring.” We believe the Bible is formally insufficient (this is the question of the rule of faith) and must be interpreted by human beings, who then differ from each other unless there is a “final court”: which for us is the magisterium: popes and popes in conjunction with ecumenical councils or agreeing consensus of bishops apart from such councils.

[[in the Catholic view] some visible and infallible judge, . . . decides without ambiguity which side has the better case, . . . since otherwise there would be no end to disagreements.

Absolutely right. Without such human infallible authority, what happens in fact and in real life is hundreds of mutually contradictory disagreements and denominationalism: both of which are severely contrary to the Bible, which teaches one truth, one Church, and no denominations. Thus, ironically, in the effort to be so supposedly “biblical” and in opposing the Catholic system which is entirely biblical, Protestants end up being profoundly, indefensibly unbiblical.

But such a judge can be found nowhere except in the church, where they set up four tribunals from which there is no appeal: (1) the church, (2) the councils, (3) the Fathers, (4) the pope; but finally when all is said the pope, to whom this supreme and infallible decision should be granted, stands alone.

In the Catholic view, the Church cannot overturn received apostolic tradition, councils must be ratified by popes, the Church fathers are guides insofar as a manifestation of the “consensus of historic theology and orthodoxy” (not magisterial or infallible), and popes are infallible only under certain highly specific conditions.

We do not deny that there can be in the church a ministerial and secondary judge, who can officially moderate controversies over the faith by the Word of God, but we hold that the Holy Spirit, as its source, teaches us the true interpretation of Scripture where inner assurance is concerned. We deny that any supreme and infallible judge except Scripture need be sought with regard to external proof of the object, much less that the pope, who assumes such a task, is to be accepted. We believe that Scripture alone, or God speaking in it, is enough.

Here lies the heart of the controversy. Saying the Holy Spirit gives us “inner assurance” is just words. Indeed, the Spirit can and does do that, but the problem is that people don’t always accuracy discern His voice. Hence, we have the absurdity of Christians all appealing to the Bible and the Holy Spirit, yet disagreeing on doctrine, precisely because there is no system of binding authority.

The Protestant cries “Scripture, Scripture” but it necessarily needs an authoritative interpreter, lest the disagreements and sectarianism start in right away: precisely as actually happened in history: Luther came around, then Zwingli and Anabaptists and Calvinists and Carlstadt and the Anglicans disagreed with him. And so forth and so on, up to multiple hundreds if not thousands of competing Protestant opinions. That is hardly helpful for the individual seeking the one biblical, divine truth, to actually find it.

Where contradiction is present, error must necessarily be present, and lies and falsehood are of the devil, as Jesus taught. Denominationalism and rejection of Catholic authority always brings this about, and has no solution to it. Theological relativism is not biblical. Scripture alone is obviously not enough to actually bring about unity. It simply hasn’t happened; whereas Catholic authority has produced one identifiable, unified doctrine.

God, in both Old and New Testaments, calls us to this judge finally and without any condition. “Do according to the law which shall teach you” (Deut. 17:10[11]); “To the teaching and the testimony” (Isa. 8:20); “They have Moses and the prophets, let them hear them” (Luke 16:29). Christ does not say, “they have priests and scribes who cannot err, let them hear them,” but, “they have Moses and the prophets,” that is, they have them through their writings. Thus he declares that these writings are fully sufficient for instruction, and that their authority must be accepted.

Authoritative teaching and interpretation was present from the beginning: not just a Bible that everyone could read for themselves:

1) In Exodus 18:20 we see that Moses was to “teach” the Jews the “statutes and the decisions” and “make them know the way in which they must walk and what they must do”— not just read it to them. Since he was the Lawgiver and author of the Torah, it stands to reason that his interpretation and teaching would be of a highly authoritative nature.

2) Likewise, God told Aaron, Moses’ brother: “you are to teach the people of Israel all the statutes which the LORD has spoken to them by Moses” (Leviticus 10:11). The law was not self-interpreting or self-explanatory, according to God, who gave it to Moses. It had to be interpreted and taught by human beings. And this is God Himself saying it, not just Dave Armstrong, Catholic apologist.

3) Again, God repeatedly instructs Moses to “teach” the people:

Deuteronomy 4:1 (RSV) And now, O Israel, give heed to the statutes and the ordinances which I teach you, . . .

Deuteronomy 4:5 Behold, I have taught you statutes and ordinances, as the LORD my God commanded me, . . .

Deuteronomy 4:14 And the LORD commanded me at that time to teach you statutes and ordinances, . . .

4) The Levitical priests also were given the authority to teach in a binding fashion:

Deuteronomy 33:10 They shall teach Jacob thy ordinances, and Israel thy law; . . . (cf. 2 Chr 17:8-9)

2 Chronicles 15:3 For a long time Israel was without the true God, and without a teaching priest, and without law;

Malachi 2:6-7 True instruction was in his mouth, and no wrong was found on his lips. He walked with me in peace and uprightness, and he turned many from iniquity. [7] For the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and men should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the LORD of hosts.

5) Ezra, a priest and scribe, studied the Jewish law and taught it to Israel, and his authority was binding, under pain of imprisonment, banishment, loss of goods, and even death:

Ezra 7:10 For Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the LORD, and to do it, and to teach his statutes and ordinances in Israel.

Ezra 7:25-26 And you, Ezra, according to the wisdom of your God which is in your hand, appoint magistrates and judges who may judge all the people in the province Beyond the River, all such as know the laws of your God; and those who do not know them, you shall teach. [26] Whoever will not obey the law of your God and the law of the king, let judgment be strictly executed upon him, whether for death or for banishment or for confiscation of his goods or for imprisonment.

Ezra read the law of Moses to the people in Jerusalem (Nehemiah 8:3). But it wasn’t merely read, as if hearing it was sufficient for everyone. It was authoritatively interpreted:

Nehemiah 8:7-8 Also Jesh’ua, Bani, Sherebi’ah, Jamin, Akkub, Shab’bethai, Hodi’ah, Ma-asei’ah, Keli’ta, Azari’ah, Jo’zabad, Hanan, Pelai’ah, the Levites, helped the people to understand the law, while the people remained in their places. [8] And they read from the book, from the law of God, clearly; and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. (cf. 8:12)

The Bible is not altogether clear in and of itself, but requires the aid of teachers who are more familiar with biblical styles and Hebrew idiom, background, context, exegesis and cross-reference, hermeneutical principles, original languages, etc.

6) It’s the same in the New Testament: the Bible requires authoritative interpretation:

Luke 24:25-27 . . “O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! [26] Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” [27] And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.

Luke 24:45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures,

Acts 8:30-31 So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” [31] And he said, “How can I, unless some one guides me?” . . .

2 Peter 1:20 First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation,

2 Peter 3:15-16 . . . So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, [16] speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures.

A supreme and infallible judge is indeed one who is never wrong in his decisions, and cannot err, who is not influenced by any interested party, and from whom there can be no appeal. But all these qualities can be attributed neither to the church nor to the councils nor to the pope, for they both can err and often have done so most grievously, and they are parties to the case, standing accused as falsifiers and corruptors of Scripture,  . . . 

Even if this were true (which it is not), what is the Protestant “solution” to the falsely alleged “problem”? Well, it’s to set up hundreds or thousands of theologically incompatible denominations, each giving its opinion on this or that. And that is allegedly an “improvement” over the system of ecumenical councils and popes? Now it’s much easier to discern theological truth? Protestants can’t even agree on something as basic to the faith as baptism. They have five different views:

1) Infant baptismal regeneration (e.g., Lutherans).

2) Adult baptismal regeneration (e.g., Churches of Christ).

3) Symbolic-only infant baptism (e.g., Presbyterians).

4) Symbolic-only adult baptism (e.g., Baptists).

5) No baptism required at all (e.g., Quakers, Salvation Army).

A human being cannot be an infallible interpreter of Scripture and judge of controversies, because he is subject to error, and our faith cannot be made dependent upon him, but only upon God on whom the meaning and teaching of Scripture depend, . . . 

This is untrue, as we know from the prophets, who spoke with infallibility. Prophets routinely purported to proclaim the very “word of the LORD.” This is a much greater claim than infallibility under limited conditions. Papal infallibility is primarily a preventive, or “negative” guarantee, not positive inspiration. It is easy to argue, then, that infallibility is a far less noteworthy gift than the “revelation on the spot” that we observe in the prophets:

1 Samuel 15:10 The word of the LORD came to Samuel:

2 Samuel 23:2 The Spirit of the LORD speaks by me, his word is upon my tongue. [King David]

1 Chronicles 17:3 But that same night the word of the LORD came to Nathan,

Isaiah 38:4 Then the word of the LORD came to Isaiah:

Jeremiah 26:15 . . . the LORD sent me to you to speak all these words in your ears.

Ezekiel 33:1 The word of the LORD came to me: [“word of the LORD” appears 60 times in the Book of Ezekiel]

Haggai 1:13 Then Haggai, the messenger of the LORD, spoke to the people with the LORD’s message, ‘I am with you, says the LORD.’

At the Council of Jerusalem, it was claimed that the decision reached was directly guided by the Holy Spirit:

Acts 15:29-30 For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from unchastity.

In the next chapter, we learn that Paul, Timothy, and Silas traveled around “through the cities” and “delivered to them for observance the decisions which had been reached by the apostles and elders who were at Jerusalem” (Acts 16:4). This is binding Church authority – with the sanction of the Holy Spirit Himself -, and an explicit biblical proof of the gift of infallibility that the Catholic Church claims for itself when it assembles in a council.

Nor do the rulers of the church cease to be human beings, and therefore fallible, just because they are guided by the Holy Spirit, because their inspiration is merely ordinal)’ and general, not the extraordinary and special [inspiration] which confers the gift of infallibility, such as was given the prophets and apostles.

It wasn’t just prophets and apostles. In the Jerusalem council, not all were apostles. It’s noted five times in Acts 15 that “elders” (the equivalent of priests or pastors; in some cases, bishops) participated alongside apostles (15:2, 4, 6, 22-23; cf. 16:4 above), and the letter sent was in part written by them, and protected by the Holy Spirit from error. Therefore, the notion that no one could be infallible, but Bible writers, prophets, and apostles, is untrue, and the Bible explicitly says so.

If there is such a judge as the Roman Catholics claim, it is strange (1) that the Lord never mentioned the need for such an interpreter,

I gave examples above of His interpretation of Scriptures that had been misunderstood, concerning Himself (Lk 24:27, 45). Therefore, according to the words of Jesus Himself, the Bible needs interpretation. For the Protestant view to be true, Jesus would have had to say something like, “go read passage x; you have no need for Me to interpret it, because it’s self-interpreting and perspicuous . . .” But of course He did not do that. It’s recorded, rather that “he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” and “he opened their minds to understand the scriptures”.

We also see Jesus challenging the Pharisees and other skeptics and providing counter-exegesis. I have provided but five examples of surely a greater number:

Matthew 12:3-4 He said to them, “Have you not read what David did, when he was hungry, and those who were with him: [4] how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests?

Matthew 19:8 He said to them, “For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.”

Matthew 22:41-46 Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them a question, [42] saying, “What do you think of the Christ? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” [43] He said to them, “How is it then that David, inspired by the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying, [44] `The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand, till I put thy enemies under thy feet’? [45] If David thus calls him Lord, how is he his son?” [46] And no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did any one dare to ask him any more questions.

John 5:45-47 Do not think that I shall accuse you to the Father; it is Moses who accuses you, on whom you set your hope. [46] If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me. [47] But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?”

John 10:34-36 Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your law, `I said, you are gods’? [35] If he called them gods to whom the word of God came (and scripture cannot be broken), [36] do you say of him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world, `You are blaspheming,’ because I said, `I am the Son of God’?

In all these cases, the Pharisees interpreted Scripture wrongly, and authoritative teacher Jesus interpreted correctly. Likewise, with all of human history. There are right and wrong interpretations. Unless God provides some means to protect human beings in authority in the Church from error, then chaos will inevitably ensue (as Protestant history proves in abundance). We believe that God did do this in conferring infallibility upon popes and ecumenical councils in conjunction with him.

Protestantism has not offered any plausible or biblical alternative to this. They offer competing sects which make a mockery of the New Testament doctrine of one truth and one Church and one faith, and no denominations making rival claims about a myriad of theological issues. That is clearly not God’s will, as the Bible states: “God is not a God of confusion but of peace” (1 Cor 14:33) and “he cannot deny himself” (2 Tim 2:13).

And, of course (let’s not forget), “the devil . . . has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” (Jn 8:44). Falsehood is of the devil. St. Paul urges us to put away “falsehood” and to “let every one speak the truth with his neighbor” (Eph 4:25). Competing denominations, that teach contradictory things, do not further this required aim, because one or both of them must be wrong, according to the laws of logic. But Paul and other Bible writers refer constantly to “the truth”.

(2) that Paul in his letters, especially in that to the Romans, never by one little word informed them of this privilege,

It follows from his constant reference to “the truth” that he believed in one unified body of truth, in unison with some sort of governance in the Church. This is shown in how he “delivered to them for observance the decisions which had been reached by the apostles and elders who were at Jerusalem” (Acts 16:4).

That was, in effect, an ecumenical council, with both Peter and Paul in attendance, and Peter (arguably) delivering the key talk that guided the eventual decision made (the text doesn’t even record what Paul said). Sounds pretty Catholic to me! Peter leads a council, and obedient Paul delivers its binding decisions to Christians all over Asia Minor (present-day Turkey).

That’s an infallible Church, headed by a pope, with even the great apostle Paul feeling himself bound by its decisions. That’s as far from sola Scriptura as anyone can imagine, and perfectly — remarkably, amazingly — harmonious with Catholic ecclesiology. This is why Protestants want to mostly avoid the issue of the Jerusalem Council. It’s far too fatal to their novel and most unbiblical ecclesiology.

Peter, in his catholic Epistles, did not assume this power for continuing the succession, much less exercise it himself. 

To the contrary, Peter addresses his first letter very widely: to “the exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappado’cia, Asia, and Bithyn’ia,” (1 Pet 1:1). Pontus was in the north of Turkey and largely surrounding the Black Sea north of it. Galatia was in the center of Asia Minor (Turkey),  Cappadocia in its southeast, and Bithynia in its northwest. “Asia” in the NT refers to Asia Minor.

So Peter was writing to Christians in a vast area. The size of Turkey is about a thousand miles from west to east, and 300-400 miles from north to south. This is the area, and also east and north of the Black Sea, that was the recipient of Peter’s first epistle. The letter is filled with decidedly “papal” commands: and Peter assumes sublime authority throughout his epistle:

“gird up your minds” (1:13); “be holy yourselves in all your conduct” (1:15); “love one another earnestly from the heart” (1:22); “So put away all malice and all guile and insincerity and envy and all slander” (2:1); “long for the pure spiritual milk” (2:2); “abstain from the passions of the flesh” (2:11); “Maintain good conduct among the Gentiles” (2:12); “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution” (2:13); “Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.” (2:17); ” wives, be submissive to your husbands” (3:1); “Likewise you husbands, live considerately with your wives, bestowing honor on the woman” (3:7); “have unity of spirit, sympathy, love of the brethren, a tender heart and a humble mind.” (3:8); “Do not return evil for evil or reviling for reviling” (3:9); “in your hearts reverence Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to make a defense” (3:15: apologetics!); ” keep your conscience clear” (3:16); “keep sane and sober for your prayers” (4:7); “hold unfailing your love for one another” (4:8); “Practice hospitality ungrudgingly to one another” (4:9); “As each has received a gift, employ it for one another” (4:10); “Tend the flock of God that is your charge” (5:2: addressed specifically to other bishops); “you that are younger be subject to the elders” (5:5); “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God” (5:6); “Be sober, be watchful” (5:8); and “Resist him, firm in your faith” (5:9).

The popes themselves have not been able, and have not wanted, to settle, by this infallible authority, many most serious controversies that have taken place within the Roman Church, between Thomists and Scotists, Dominicans and Jesuits, Jesuits and Jansenists. Why have they not overcome quarrels, and solved troublesome problems, by their infallibility? If they could, why did they not free the church from such scandals?

This verifies the actual limitations of infallibility. The Church has not decided to resolve absolutely every theological issue, and allows diversity in some things. There can be different approaches on very deep and partly philosophical issues such as predestination (Thomists vs. Jesuits), which is one of the most mysterious and difficult to understand matters in all of theology. So the Church has allowed different opinions, accordingly, and doesn’t claim to have all knowledge about everything. But these are not differences of a fundamental nature. The Jansenists, on the other hand, were indeed condemned as heretical by the Church. The Wikipedia article on them verifies this:

The apostolic constitution Cum occasione, promulgated by Pope Innocent X in 1653, condemned five cardinal doctrines of Jansenism as heretical, especially the relationship between human free will and efficacious grace, . . . further controversy led to the papal bull Unigenitus of Pope Clement XI in 1713 which condemned further Jansenist teachings. This controversy did not end until Louis Antoine de Noailles, cardinal and archbishop of Paris who had opposed the bull, signed it in 1728.

The first part of this controversy occurred when Turretin was 30 years old. So he should have been aware of it, But he seems not to be.

The church cannot be made judge of controversies because it would be a judge of its own case. The chief controversy concerns the power and infallibility of the church: on the question whether the church should decide whether the Roman Church cannot err, will the same church sit as judge and must it be believed because it declares itself [inerrant]?

Prophets and the Council of Jerusalem pronounced themselves to be infallible, too, I see no inherent difficulty with such a scenario. Rome claimed (and no historian denies this) that Peter and Paul died there and set up the Church and that there was a papal succession. This can be verified by the usual historical means. I show how Pope Clement of Rome was acting very “papally” before 100 AD. In his letter to the Corinthians he states: “If, however, any shall disobey the words spoken by Him through us, let them know that they will involve themselves in transgression and serious danger” (59) and refers to “the words written by us and through the Holy Spirit” (63).

Indeed, is it to be endured that the Holy Scripture, which all acknowledge as the infallible Word of God, be unacceptable as judge? 

Yes. It requires interpretation like any other large and complex document, and it itself shows that this is the case, as I have shown beyond argument. And what is the Protestant alternative? Hundreds or thousands of competing sects: sowing massive confusion and spreading lies wherever there is a contradiction.

Just as a ruler is the interpreter of his own law, so also God is the interpreter of his own Scripture, which is the law of faith and conduct.

Yes He is, and as I documented above, God: either speaking directly (such as to Moses) or through inspired writers of Holy Scripture, repeatedly taught that the Bible needs interpretation. Why is that not good enough for Protestants? It’s not rocket science. Why is it insisted that we must follow an unbiblical tradition, when the “answer” to this vexed issue is staring us in the face in several clear Bible passages? That should settle it for Protestants, who so often claim to have a singular love for the Bible (over against Catholics). But it doesn’t. Why? Turretin here starts citing Aristotle (Politics). As I said: traditions of men . . . I’m sticking to Scripture, thank you.

Scripture has various and ambiguous meanings, not because of the nature of what is taught or the intention of the teacher, but because of the ignorance or stubbornness of the distorter.

Yes, of course: which is exactly why we need authoritative interpretation, because these factors will always be in play. How does Protestantism solve the problem? It doesn’t . . . rather than having centralized authority and interpretation, it simply multiplies the interpreters, to no one’s advantage.

Therefore, if this ambiguity and obscurity exists, it does not invalidate the authority, but demonstrates the need for the illumination of the Spirit, and the ministry of interpreting the Scriptures.

Thus, he appeals back to the Holy Spirit. But of course, that has to be discerned, too, and many people claim to be led by the Spirit, but contradict each other, thus proving that one or both are in error.  We need objective human authority.

Even though it may be a question of the true interpretation of some passage in Scripture, it is not necessary to have a visible infallible judge in addition to Scripture, for Scripture is interpreted through its own contents . . . 

That’s not always the case, as the Bible itself teaches (as shown).

If a father speaks in his will, and a king in edicts and commissions, why can we not say that the heavenly Father in both Testaments, and the King of Kings in the divine oracles, is speaking to us in the plainest voice?

The teaching is clear, but requires much study and knowledge of languages, culture, methods of interpretation, etc. People get it wrong, for various reasons, so they need help. God has set up a system in which they get such help.

The example of Moses and Aaron cannot be used to establish a supreme and infallible judge besides Scripture. (1) Both were subordinate, not authoritative, judges: the former an extraordinary one, the latter, ordinary.

Of course they were subordinate to God, but that’s beside the point. God appointed them to teach His law and His Word to His people. Over and over, God said, “teach them”: as opposed to “give them my books to read” or “read them my books.”

They decided controversies, not by their own authority, but by the law and commandment of God; Moses as the mediator for bringing [questions] to God. (Exod. 18:19) and Aaron for answering in accordance with the law; “whatever they shall teach according to the law you shall do” (Deut. 17:11).

Again, of course, but simply noting the obvious: that they are under God’s authority (duh!!!) doesn’t change the fact that God commanded them to teach (which is relevant to this discussion and issue).

Although Christ calls us to the voice of the church as if whoever will not listen is to be regarded as a heathen and a publican (Matt. 18:17), he does not make it an infallible judge in matters of faith because (1) he speaks, not of a question of matters of faith, but of private offenses and disruptions of fellowship,

True, but Paul does function as an authoritative interpreter when he urges Christians to separate from those causing divisions and ones who do not accept the one truth and one faith (i.e., doctrine) that he was spreading through evangelism and apostolic authority:

Romans 16:17 I appeal to you, brethren, to take note of those who create dissensions and difficulties, in opposition to the doctrine which you have been taught; avoid them.

2 Timothy 3:5-8 holding the form of religion but denying the power of it. Avoid such people. [6] For among them are those who make their way into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and swayed by various impulses, [7] who will listen to anybody and can never arrive at a knowledge of the truth. [8] As Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so these men also oppose the truth, men of corrupt mind and counterfeit faith;

Moreover, the Jerusalem Council spoke infallibly to all Christians, guided by the Holy Spirit, on a question of theology: the relationship of law and grace with regard to new Gentile believers (particularly, circumcision). It was interpreting the Mosaic Law and deciding when and how it is binding and obligatory. Circumcision had always been practiced by the Jews, and Paul himself even had half-Jewish Timothy circumcised (Acts 16:3). But the council decided that Gentile converts need not be circumcised.

Baptism became the new rite of entrance into the new covenant community. This was never spelled out in the Bible itself. Human beings (including elders, not just apostles) figured that out in a council and then required Christians thereafter to be bound by it. This is conciliar authority — no two ways about it — , and not at all sola Scriptura.

Even though, in the external matter of behavior, every person, unless he is willing to be excommunicated, is bound to submit himself to the decisions of synods, and should respect such judgment for the preservation of order, peace, and orthodoxy, so that the agitations of innovators (novatorum molimina) may be suppressed, it does not follow that this judgment is supreme and infallible, because there is always [the possibility of] appeal to the internal court of conscience, where nothing binds beyond the point where we have been convinced that it agrees with the Scriptures.

This is hopelessly absurd. As is typical of Protestants writing on these matters (with Catholicism always in mind), he gives lip service to synods, but then correctly notes that in Protestantism, any and all of their teachings can always be rejected by any individual with Bible in hand, who deems that the synod was unbiblical. And so all that does is multiply more sects and divisions: expressly against God’s will (as described numerous times by St. Paul). Chaos and theological relativism is the inevitable result. Yet Turretin (no dummy) — amazingly enough — can’t figure out that such is the inevitable result of “private judgment.” The “buck” never stops anywhere, and that can’t possibly be a good thing or a furtherance of the one divine truth.

We conclude with the golden words of Basil: “Therefore let the divinely inspired writing be judge for us, and the verdict of truth be without reserve for those whose teachings are found in agreement with the teachings of Scripture” (epistle 189, to Eustathius the physician).

As usual, we get a patristic text in isolation, without consulting what the same Church father believed about related issues. No Catholic disagrees with the above. We believe all Catholic teachings must be, and in fact, are, in harmony with Holy Scripture (Schaff’s version of this letter reads: “on whichever side be found doctrines in harmony with the word of God, in favour of that side will be cast the vote of truth”). But does this rule out the sublime authority of councils? Turretin says yes; St. Basil the Great says no:

[T]he same Fathers . . . at Nicæa promulgated their great decree concerning the faith. Of this, some portions are universally accepted without cavil, but the homoousion, ill received in certain quarters, is still rejected by some. . . . To refuse to follow the Fathers, not holding their declaration of more authority than one’s own opinion, is conduct worthy of blame, as being brimful of self-sufficiency. (Letter No. 52 to the Canonicae; NPNF2-8)

[Y]ou should confess the faith put forth by our Fathers once assembled at Nicæa, that you should not omit any one of its propositions, but bear in mind that the three hundred and eighteen who met together without strife did not speak without the operation of the Holy Ghost, . . .  (Letter No. 114 to Cyriacus, at Tarsus; NPNF2-8)

St. Basil also fully accepted the infallible authority of sacred apostolic tradition (even “unwritten tradition”: twice!) and apostolic succession: both of which the so-called “reformers” ditched in the 16th century when they adopted the novel tradition of men, sola Scriptura:

Let us now investigate what are our common conceptions concerning the Spirit, as well those which have been gathered by us from Holy Scripture concerning It as those which we have received from the unwritten tradition of the Fathers. (The Holy Spirit,  Ch. 9, 22; NPNF2-8)

The one aim of the whole band of opponents and enemies of sound doctrine [1 Timothy 1:10] is to shake down the foundation of the faith of Christ by levelling apostolic tradition with the ground, and utterly destroying it. So like the debtors — of course bona fide debtors — they clamour for written proof, and reject as worthless the unwritten tradition of the Fathers. But we will not slacken in our defense of the truth. (The Holy Spirit,  Ch. 10, 25; NPNF2-8)

Of the beliefs and practices whether generally accepted or publicly enjoined which are preserved in the Church some we possess derived from written teaching; others we have received delivered to us in a mystery by the tradition of the apostles; and both of these in relation to true religion have the same force. And these no one will gainsay — no one, at all events, who is even moderately versed in the institutions of the Church. . . . For were we to attempt to reject such customs as have no written authority, on the ground that the importance they possess is small, we should unintentionally injure the Gospel in its very vitals; or, rather, should make our public definition a mere phrase and nothing more. For instance, to take the first and most general example, who is thence who has taught us in writing to sign with the sign of the cross those who have trusted in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ? What writing has taught us to turn to the East at the prayer? Which of the saints has left us in writing the words of the invocation at the displaying of the bread of the Eucharist and the cup of blessing? For we are not, as is well known, content with what the apostle or the Gospel has recorded, but both in preface and conclusion we add other words as being of great importance to the validity of the ministry, and these we derive from unwritten teaching. Moreover we bless the water of baptism and the oil of the chrism, and besides this the catechumen who is being baptized. On what written authority do we do this? Is not our authority silent and mystical tradition? Nay, by what written word is the anointing of oil itself taught? And whence comes the custom of baptizing thrice? And as to the other customs of baptism from what Scripture do we derive the renunciation of Satan and his angels? Does not this come from that unpublished and secret teaching which our fathers guarded in a silence out of the reach of curious meddling and inquisitive investigation? Well had they learned the lesson that the awful dignity of the mysteries is best preserved by silence. What the uninitiated are not even allowed to look at was hardly likely to be publicly paraded about in written documents. . . . In the same manner the Apostles and Fathers who laid down laws for the Church from the beginning thus guarded the awful dignity of the mysteries in secrecy and silence, for what is bruited abroad random among the common folk is no mystery at all. This is the reason for our tradition of unwritten precepts and practices, that the knowledge of our dogmas may not become neglected and contemned by the multitude through familiarity. (The Holy Spirit,  Ch. 27, 66; NPNF2-8)

In answer to the objection that the doxology in the form with the Spirit has no written authority, we maintain that if there is no other instance of that which is unwritten, then this must not be received. But if the greater number of our mysteries are admitted into our constitution without written authority, then, in company with the many others, let us receive this one. For I hold it apostolic to abide also by the unwritten traditions. I praise you, it is said, that you remember me in all things, and keep the ordinances as I delivered them to you; [1 Corinthians 11:2] and Hold fast the traditions which you have been taught whether by word, or our Epistle. [2 Thessalonians 2:15] One of these traditions is the practice which is now before us, which they who ordained from the beginning, rooted firmly in the churches, delivering it to their successors, and its use through long custom advances pace by pace with time. (The Holy Spirit,  Ch. 29, 71; NPNF2-8)

[W]e too are undismayed at the cloud of our enemies, and, resting our hope on the aid of the Spirit, have, with all boldness, proclaimed the truth. Had I not so done, it would truly have been terrible that the blasphemers of the Spirit should so easily be emboldened in their attack upon true religion, and that we, with so mighty an ally and supporter at our side, should shrink from the service of that doctrine, which by the tradition of the Fathers has been preserved by an unbroken sequence of memory to our own day. (The Holy Spirit,  Ch. 30, 79; NPNF2-8)

In our case, too, in addition to the open attack of the heretics, the Churches are reduced to utter helplessness by the war raging among those who are supposed to be orthodox. For all these reasons we do indeed desire your help, that, for the future all who confess the apostolic faith may put an end to the schisms which they have unhappily devised, and be reduced for the future to the authority of the Church; that so, once more, the body of Christ may be complete, restored to integrity with all its members. Thus we shall not only praise the blessings of others, which is all we can do now, but see our own Churches once more restored to their pristine boast of orthodoxy. For, truly, the boon given you by the Lord is fit subject for the highest congratulation, your power of discernment between the spurious and the genuine and pure, and your preaching the faith of the Fathers without any dissimulation. That faith we have received; that faith we know is stamped with the marks of the Apostles; to that faith we assent, as well as to all that was canonically and lawfully promulgated in the Synodical Letter. (Letter No. 92 to the Italians and Gauls, 3; NPNF2-8)

St. Basil mentions “tradition” 21 times in The Holy Spirit: “the tradition of their fathers” (7, 16); “the tradition of the Fathers” (7, 16); “Can I then, perverted by these men’s seductive words, abandon the tradition which guided me to the light . . .?” (10, 26); “For the tradition that has been given us by the quickening grace must remain for ever inviolate” (12, 28); “by the tradition of the divine knowledge the baptized may have their souls enlightened” (15, 35); “the unwritten traditions are so many” (27, 67); etc.

So we see that the highest reverence of Scripture can exist alongside with reverence for an ecumenical council which always operated with “the operation of the Holy Ghost” and that the same father thought that “not holding their declaration of more authority than one’s own opinion, is conduct worthy of blame.” And it can co-exist with a belief in the sublime authority of apostolic tradition and apostolic succession. As it was for Basil, so it is for Catholics, now, and from the beginning.

So, Turretin misrepresents St. Basil, who assuredly did not believe in sola Scriptura. It’s the same old “Protestant patristic routine” with Turretin: cite one thing and ignore many other writings by the same Church father which prove that he didn’t believe in sola Scriptura, and did believe in the Catholic rule of faith. A half-truth is no better than a falsehood, and there is a good reason for the American legal oath: “do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?”


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Photo credit: from the Brill page, “Francis Turretin (1623–87) and the Reformed Tradition”: chapter 6, publication history.


Summary: 17th century Calvinist theologian François Turretin asserted a “self-interpreting Bible.” Great idea, but in practice it produces theological relativism & chaos.

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