Just so anyone stumbling upon this doesn't misunderstand, I'm not saying all this stuff here as some kind of arrogant rebellion against my tradition. I know the importance of being submissive and respectful to your pastors, friends, and counselors when coming to these kind of convictions, and the discussion here is part of that kind of dialogue, open to revision and correction; it is not intended as a "Behold I have found the light, now hearken, all ye."
One of the issues that my new perspective has finally helped me gain clarity on is the issue of sola Scriptura, and how we as Protestants are to understand it. Unlike most of the other issues I’m discussing here, this was not one that has been nagging me for a long time, surprisingly. It seems that somehow I thought we had it all figured out. But last month, I became greatly unsettled by some conversations I had with a friend, and then by listening to a debate between Bahnsen and a couple Catholic dudes. I hadn’t heard much Bahnsen before, but I’d heard that he usually wiped the floor in his debates. But when he tackled sola Scriptura with these two Catholic dudes, he got his butt kicked all the way back to Escondido (funny thing is, I don’t think he realized it). He completely failed to respond to many of their arguments, and didn’t really even seem to see the force of those arguments. By the end, the Catholic guys were understandably rather frustrated with him for mindlessly repeating the same maxims, heedless of all the devastating counterarguments they’d raised.
I hoped that returning to Keith Mathison’s The Shape of Sola Scriptura might give me some comfort. After all, it was from a much higher-church perspective than Bahnsen and so was fairly balanced and respectful toward church tradition, and I remembered having loved it as a freshman. Alas, I had to depart from my earlier optimistic judgment. In the end, Mathison too collapsed into fuzziness and seemed to have few real answers to offer. I’ve been stewing on the shortcomings of his treatment for a while and planning to write something up about it, and recently, after coming to Anglo-Catholic convictions, a fairly clear solution to the quandary has finally presented itself. So I’ll first take on the problems with Mathison, and then (what I think) is the solution.
First, Mathison adopts the categories of “Tradition 1,” which is to say that Scripture alone is authoritative, but must be interpreted within the subordinate “rule of faith”—Tradition and Scripture coincide as two faces of the same authority here; “Tradition 2,” which is to say that two separate authoritative streams exist—the written Scriptures and the unwritten traditions; and “Tradition 3,” which says that only the traditions of the church are finally authoritative (supposedly the modern Catholic position). This way of putting things seems to me a bit baffling and artificial, and when he tries to put the early Church Fathers and most medieval thinkers into this mold (always fitting them into Tradition 1, mind you). After all, if church tradition as an authoritative interpretation and application of the apostolic proclamation be admitted (Tradition 1), then necessarily, this must have relied on certain unwritten traditions and practices, at least so long as the canon was still being compiled—indeed, such traditions were necessary to help decide what the canon was (Tradition 2); and, because Scripture is not to be interpreted outside of the traditional teaching of the church, many of these traditions, then, should be given full authority (Tradition 3). Or, perhaps I should just say that Tradition 3, as he explains it, would be held by very few, I think, and that Tradition 1 and Tradition 2 are not so easily distinguishable. Especially problematic are the places where he dismisses something that looks like Tradition 2 in the Fathers by saying that these unwritten traditions were simply liturgical and practical traditions, not traditions of doctrine. But liturgy is doctrine! The lex orandi was a huge way in which unwritten apostolic traditions were passed down and passed into an authoritative lex credendi.
I think John Keble puts it very nicely, so I will stop trying my clumsy attempts at clarifying the matter: “Because it is affirmed that the full tradition of Christianity existed before the Christian Scriptures, and so far independent of them, we are charged with alleging two distinct systems or words of God, the one written, the other unwritten, running as it were parallel to each other quite down to our own time. But this, by the terms of the case, is plainly unwarranted. If a man were to say that the Severn and the Wye rise separately in the same mountain, one higher up than the other, must he therefore maintain that they never meet before they reach the sea? Tradition and Scritpure were at first two streams flowing down from the mountain of God, but their waters presently became blended, and it were but a vain and unpractical inquiry, to call upon every one who drinks of them to say, how much of the healing draught came from one source, and how much from the other. On account of those who would poison the stream, it is necessary from time to time to analyse it, and show that it contains no ingredients which were not to be found in one or other of the two Mountains; and in so doing, it becomes incidentally manifest, at least in some mass; it is manifest, for example, that all necessary credenda, all truths essential to salvation, are contained in the Scripture itself; and is it not equally manifest, that many helps of greatest consequence, nay I will say generally necessary, to the right development and application of Scripture, are mostly if not entirely derivable from Tradition? And is it not a poor kind of reasoning to say, Tradition would have been worthless had we been left to it alone, therefore it cannot be of any value, now that Scripture has been all along at hand, to check, to sustain, to interpret, to rectify it, as the several occasions might require?”
Also problematic is how Mathison deals with Scripture itself in formulating his position, which is pretty important considering what he’s trying to do. Over and over, he turns to a passage commonly used in the debate and seeks to demonstrate that “you cannot simply get from this passage to the full-blown Catholic teaching on tradition and the magisterium.” So what? It’s awful hard to simply get from any given passage straight to the doctrine of the Trinity, but that doesn’t mean it’s not firmly and absolutely true. I’m not arguing for the Roman doctrine; I’m just saying that Mathison’s way of arguing against it is rather unhelpful and weak-looking. To show that other assumptions will need to be part of the argument is not an effective way of showing that the argument is necessarily wrong. Mathison spends most of his time showing what the passage doesn’t necessarily mean, but precious little time showing what it does in fact mean.
And this is my major beef with his whole book, and with our whole doctrine: it’s very focused on showing what we most certainly DON’T believe, and very weak on showing what we do actually believe. If Scripture doesn’t lead us to the Catholic position, what does it lead us to? If we don’t believe in Tradition 2 or Tradition 0 (that is, “tradition be damned”), then what does Tradition 1 really look like? I hoped to find answers in Mathison, but I found few. Basically, the position seems to be: Scripture must be interpreted by authoritative church teaching. Such an authoritative tradition existed in the early Church, and helped give us the major creeds. We call this tradition the regula fidei, and we rely on it as our foundation in interpreting Scripture. But other traditions not contained in this regula fidei are not authoritative. The problem here is that the regula fidei seems very arbitrarily limited both in scope and time. This authority of the Church appears to extend only to a few select doctrines which Mathison is comfortable including in the regula fidei—Trinity, Incarnation, etc., and it extends only till about the 5th century. In other words, the Church wields a lot of authority until it creates the canon, and then all its authority disappears. This seems rather odd. Mathison gives very little coherent account of what the continuing authority of the Church and its tradition looks like.
Now, at the risk of making Mathison’s mistake and simply saying what I don’t believe, rather than what I do believe, let me make a stab at something which seems to have become very clear to me recently:
It all comes down to burden of proof. It seems quite clear to me that our attitude even as high-church Reformed Christians is, “I won’t accept it or submit to it until it is clear to me that Scripture teaches it.” In other words, the burden of proof is on church tradition—it is assumed to be false until Scripture establishes it. Guilty until proven innocent. Is this how you treat your Mother? Dad’s off at work, Mom tells you something to do, and you say, “Well, I don’t know if Dad would agree with what you’re telling me, so I can’t obey in good conscience until he weighs in on it.” Kids try this all the time, and it is NEVER a sign that their respect for Dad is that much greater; on the contrary, it usually means they will, in the end, have just as hard a time respecting Dad’s authority as Mom’s, when the chips are down. Cyprian said, “You cannot have God for your Father, unless you have the Church for your Mother.” Christ has made promises to the Church, that she bears the truth, that he lives in her and upholds her, inspires her with his Spirit, and you dare to tell her, “Sorry, I’m not listening unless I’m certain that the Bible tells me that you’re right.” Mathison may want to try to distinguish this kind of respect for a subordinate church tradition from the cavalier individualism of popular evangelicalism, but it’s hard for me to see that the result is much different—look at the history of Presbyterianism—respect for authority lasts only as long as complete agreement.
No, the burden of proof goes the other way—if the Church has clearly taught something throughout her history, admittedly with occasional disagreements and variations, but with remarkable unity and persistence, then that doctrine is taken as true and binding unless Scripture can be shown to disprove it. Innocent until proven guilty. The Church should never refuse to go back to Scripture to make sure, when challenged, that her doctrine is not in violation of what is clearly taught there—that’s what the Reformers were originally asking for: “Ok, maybe you’re right about this, but can you please show us how it is not in violation of Scripture?” That needs to be done from time to time, but if the answer comes back, “It looks like Scripture does not condemn this teaching, and indeed, we believe it can be discerned by implication from what is there,” then no one has the right to reply, “Well, until you can prove that this doctrine or practice is absolutely propounded by Scripture, then I can’t accept it.”
This really came home to me when we were debating 2nd commandment issues with a number of the priests. A couple were a bit baffled—“didn’t the Church already settle this at the 7th ecumenical council?” Now, they went on to say, “Of course we need to be willing and able to go back to Scripture and demonstrate that we are not in violation of its teaching,” but their point was, “This has been the teaching of the Church for ages, and you’d better have a darn good reason to disagree. We must look at the 2nd commandment carefully, but we don’t start with an interpretive blank slate. That’s impossible. Our interpretive parameters must be established with submission to the Church’s historic teaching.”
Of course this can be abused. I’m not so naïve as not to see that. But, if the leaders are godly and mature and have the attitudes of servants, I am not too afraid. On the contrary, I think such teaching is a great comfort to the faithful. In my experience, there are generally two types of people in our churches, the sort who care about what they believe and therefore have to learn how to defend it and justify it at every turn against all objections, and those who don’t care, and just coast along with little concern for theology. Generally, the only “serious” Christians in our tradition are the first kind…the second kind are generally looked on with suspicion, and often rightly so. In our doctrine, everything always has to be proven and argued, because there is no clear standard to look to. As soon as I became really interested in my faith, at age 12, I found myself having to argue and justify doctrines at every turn, and though a more ecumenical attitude has prevailed in my current setting, this is still the general ethos of the Reformed tradition. If your belief is important to you, it has to be thrashed out and fought out at every step of the way. No one can say, “I really care about what I believe, I really know what I believe, and I can rest in it and focus on living out my belief; I don’t need to fight for it.” We can’t rest because there is no bosom of the Church to rest on. I’m not saying the Church need not fight for its doctrines, that it need not always carry the Sword of the Word in its hand, to fight for the Truth, but every Christian need not be a soldier. There are other roles in the body. But, if we cannot look with confidence toward the Church our mother, trusting that there are other soldiers that have fought for us and are fighting for us, then no Christian can be a committed Christian without having to fight anew each step of the way. I know I’m sounding unKierkegaardian here, and I shall probably struggle with the tension between Kierkegaard and Newman throughout my whole life, but I think that we need to have a way for a believer to have comfort and confidence in his beliefs, a confidence which does not depend on his own ability, or even his particular church community’s ability, to articulate and defend those beliefs against all comers.