Friday, January 12, 2007

Sola Scriptura: Can These Dead (Horse) Bones Live?

Ordinary Time

Blogger George has written about his move to the Catholic Church, and why he left Baptist life. I have often insisted to folks that "Baptists have no grounds to call other people heretics." I don't say this to be mean; it's a valid assertion. People who hold to the sloganized version of the Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura insist that the Bible alone is the sole basis for doctrine and practice, which means that it is to be interpreted afresh with each reading by an individual rational mind. (Which, by the way, is a modernist way of reading the Bible, as opposed to a Christian way of reading the Bible.) Those folks routinely deny the validity of basing one's reading of the Bible upon anyone else's reading of the Bible - no tradition allowed. The problem with that is, we have to throw out any conceptions of Christian theology - truth about God - that is not explicitly described in the Scriptures.

As our man George points out, neither the Trinity nor Chalcedonian orthodoxy (this being the definition of Christ as both God and Man and how this fits together) are explicitly outlined in Scripture. That's why it took three and four centuries to get to those creedal settlements, those traditions - ways of reading the Bible.
And we were too “good” as protestants. I don’t mean we were morally superior or anything like that. We tried to actually do the whole sola scriptura (only scripture) thing. And when we focussed only on the bible (protestant version, of course), we ended up questioning some of the primary teachings of Christianity–specifically the divine nature of Jesus, and thus, the Trinity.

Of course, when it got out that we were questioning these important pieces of the faith, we were immediately ostracized by “friends” and family. Nobody could point to strong scriptural reasons for the the divine nature or the Trinity, mind you; we were just told that we were wrong for “believing that damn fool thing” (as one family member put it). At the time, Wendy and I felt like we were set adrift on an ocean…luckily, we were together on our raft. And, “luckily”, God’s Spirit wasn’t done with us.
I've got news: some of the basic Christian doctrines that all Christians everywhere have believed (and this includes most Protestant Christians) are not explicitly scriptural, and are received Tradition. But if one denies the validity of "Tradition" as such, how can one insist on belief in the Trinity?

And while we're getting into some sweet link action, Indie at The world is too much with us (who says nice things about me) has a thoughtful post on why she's been "hanging with the Episcopalians." And yes, it involves beer at some point.

Update: Why did I call it a dead horse? We dealt with it here and here as well.


Anonymous said...

Bravo! Huzzah! Well said!

Anonymous said...

Encore! Well the way check out thte new title of my blog. will be needed.

D. P. said...

You've put your finger on one of the main reasons I describe myself as "a Baptist, but not a very good one."

John Meade said...

Kyle -

You're back at it again I see!! More charicatures and just plain false information.

Sola Scriptura is not a product of Modernism. How is that possible considering the Reformation is, well, NOT modern? Luther and the other Reformers were not attempting to be anything less than Christian in their views of the church and Scripture. To say so, simply demonstrates you have not read the Reformers. The baptists come from the Reformation. The confessions all show that they are connected to the primary tenets of the Reformation.

Is the Trinity taught in Scripture? How did the Councils know about the Trinity? They were reading the Bible and concluded the Trinity (over a long period of time). The belief in the doctrine of the Trinity does not compromise Sola Scriptura. No Baptist or Reformation church has ever seen this so obvious conflict. Why is that? There is no conflict between the councils who submitted to Scripture alone in their theologizing and the position of the Reformation who did the same thing, except they applied sola Scriptura to the doctrines of salvation and the church.

What of Popes, the various doctrines relating to Mary, the eucharist, the Mass? These things cannot be compared to the doctrine of the Trinity. The latter is found in Scripture, and has been formulated into theology. The former are not found in Scripture, but church councils alone.


George said...

I'm the George that Kyle linked to originally. It's interesting that you mention "Popes, the various doctrines relating to Mary, the eucharist, the Mass" as non-scriptural and only defined by councils, whereas the doctrine of the Trinity is okay. This is where I think some reading of Church history would be in good order. The same Fathers that were led to define the Trinity at Nicea (and Constantinople) also held some very "Catholic" notions about those very things you mention.

Both Iranaeus and Tertullian (late 2nd, early 3rd century) held to primacy for the Bishop of Rome and recounted in writing the entire list of Roman Bishops from Peter to their own times as proof of authority (Irenaeus was Bishop of Lyon, and Tertullian was priest in Carthage); they lived and wrote well before the Nicean Council (Tertullian was the first to use the term "trinitas" technically for the Trinity, btw.). These same men held to the Real Presence in the Eucharist.

In terms of Marian veneration, the dogma of Mary as Theotokos ("God-bearer" or Mother of God) was arrived at in 431 at Ephesus (20 years before the Chalcedon's definition of the Hypostatic Union).

When I was Baptist, it struck me as odd that Baptists believed that all of the beliefs of the Fathers were wrong except the Trinity and the Hypostatic Union. How could everything else be wrong?

For further reading, I would suggest Mike Aquilina's excellent The Mass of the Early Christians as well as reading all of the canons of the Councils from Nicea to Chalcedon. There's a lot that was covered in those Councils besides the Big Two definitions...


John Fraiser said...


Wow. Where do I start? You write, that some of the basic Christian doctrines "are not explicitly scriptural, and are received Tradition." Does this mean that those who make up the tradition didn't think their argument was explicitly scriptural? Where did the tradition get its doctrine if not from the Old Testament and the writing of the apostles? It seems that rather than baptists pitting Scripture and tradition against one another, that you are doing this. I'm a baptist and I labor to know church tradition, not just because its interesting but because it is vastly important for helping me understand Scripture and doctrine. This is exactly what the Reformers who taught Sola Scriptura thought. Luther and Calvin both quoted Augustine and the Fathers in their debates with their opponents (Calvin's debate with Sadoleto is just one of many examples of this). They certainly didn't think that Sola Scriptura meant that they were denying tradition. Calvin tells Sadoleto that its actually the catholic church that wasn't being faithful to the tradition.

You say that Sola Scriptura means that Scripture "is to be interpreted afresh with each reading by an individual rational mind." I would like to know any Reformer who ever gave this definition of Sola Scriptura. This is a complete straw man definition. Where did you get this definition. I would reject Sola Scriptura if it meant this, but fortunately it doesn't.

"If one denies the validity of "Tradition" as such, how can one insist on belief in the Trinity?" How about on the basis of Scripture? Barth certainly thinks he can insist on belief in the Trinity on the basis of Scripture.

John Meade said...

George -

I am sorry that you have left the baptist denomination for the reasons that you mention. Those reasons would never have convinced me or most baptists. Just because the Patristics can get it right on the Trinity, does not demand that they get it right on every other point of doctrine.

It is simple to me. The NT teaches about three divine persons. The Bible affirms that there is one God. Sooner or later, the Nicean doctrine is going to be formulated in a way that will avoid necessary contradiction. They appealed to the authoritative text for their formulations. A reformation council could have done the same thing. There was nothing intrinsically special about Nicea.

I have to run, but I do want to resume this conversation. TTFN,

Kyle said...

Where to start, indeed...

O Venerable Meade, there's no reason to be upset, here. I'm not smearing your beloved Reformers, and indeed, didn't make any characterization of them, either. I said explicitly that I'm talking about the popular exposition of sola scriptura as I've heard it from preachers and people who sit in pews. I don't assume it has very much to do with what Calvin or Luther or anybody else was talking about.

As a matter of fact, we might be able to have an interesting conversation about the difference between sola scriptura as the Reformers taught it, and what people in the pews take it to mean as a slogan. I'll bet I would concede to your expertise on that one.

And I have read a bit of Luther, but very little Calvin. But if you'll look again, you'll see that I wasn't talking about them anyway. (As a bit of an aside, I've heard it said by some of my Reformed buddies - which do exist - that the Reformers thought of themselves as getting back to the Bible and the Fathers. What do you guys think?)

I'm also not going to do a tit-for-tat bit on which doctrines of which churches are "more" scriptural. That would be boring, and probably unedifying.

Cheers, George. I think very well of Aquilina, as you might have read.

John Fraiser, you cited me, "...some of the basic Christian doctrines 'are not explicitly scriptural, and are received Tradition.' Does this mean that those who make up the tradition didn't think their argument was explicitly scriptural?"

No. Heck, no. Tradition as I understand it is the history of the Church's bible reading. Anything that that stands against the Scripture doesn't belong with Tradition (no matter who's received it) because that makes it a blatantly invalid reading of Scripture.

John, I agree with all the points you're making here, at least as I'm reading them, so might I suggest that you didn't understand my post as I meant for it to be read?

So no, I didn't offer a "straw man" definition, and I didn't attribute such a doctrine to the Reformers, but that is how I have heard the doctrine from Christians on a popular level who make the mistake of pitting Scripture and Tradition against one another as if Tradition could legitimately be anything but derivative from Scripture.

I think the only point that I would want to re-iterate here is that while one can say that the Trinity can be found through reading Scripture (alone!), to say that one must read this as a test of Christian orthodoxy is to let the Tradition to it's work by defining the one right way to read it. Tradition doesn't get to do this all the time, or even a lot of the time, as far as I'm concerned, but my point is that to say a Christian must believe in the Trinity is to give authority to Tradition. This is most certainly an authority that is derivative from the Scripture, but it derives from the Church, as well. The Scripture continues to stand over all else as God exercises his authority through it.

Does that seem a little more nuanced and sensible?

Blessings, guys.

Kyle said...

Oh, and John, most of the Baptists you've known must be much better with these things than most of the Baptists I've known.

John Fraiser said...


Thank you for your helpful and clarifying response. I am glad that you do not attribute to the Reformers the view of Sola Scriptura that you presented. But the definition you have heard on a popular level does not totalize or even rule the definition of Sola Scriptura. The definition you presented is not what the Reformers intended and if you have heard people say this about Sola Scriptura then they are not presenting the doctrine accurately.

Surely, you can imagine my surprise when you say that this is what Sola Scriptura means. Anyway, I am glad that you distinguish the definition you present from the Reformers.

My question for you though is "Given that the definition you presented cannot be attributed to the Reformers, what problem do you have with the Reformers understanding of Sola Scriptura (Should you think that the Reformers did not have a unified definition of Sola Scriptura then select a particular Reformer)?"

Thanks for the dialogue.

George Terry said...

But who exactly determines what the Fathers got wrong? You? Me? The Reformers? Why does it seem that what your saying is that the Fathers only got the doctrine of the Trinity right?
You say it is simple to you...almost self-evident that the Bible speaks of "three divine persons" and "one God", so it would naturally come about in time that this doctrine would be defined. It wasn't so clear then, though; a good deal of the Christian word followed Arius' teachings, which was the precise reason for calling the council. In fact, the same can be said for Constantinople and Chalcedon, as well. It wasn't as "simple" as all that.
And because all of Christianity (Protestant and Catholic alike) acknowledge these Councils' definitions, they become the authoritative way of interpreting the scriptures. Which is how Catholicism defines Holy Tradition.
But these same Councils also authoritatively defined other things. Again, who gets to pick and choose? There is the issue of authority, and it's not good enough to say "my authority is the Bible". That's not honest. It's more honest to say "my authority is the Bible as I've been taught to interpret it within my own tradition."
Ultimately, I think it boils down to: which Tradition do I allow to have authority over me. For me, I want to be consistent. The same catholic and apostolic Church that defined the Trinity and the Hypostatic Union also taught and believed in the Real Presence in the Eucharist, venerated Mary as the God-bearer, and esteemed the Bishop of Rome as first among equals. They also believed all of these things to be scriptural in basis. But they came to these conclusions in common, in councils. And I believe that this same Tradition is authoritative for how I interpret the Bible today.

Thanks for letting me join in this discussion,

Anonymous said...

OH yes man I'm liking this one.

Kyle said...


"But the definition you have heard on a popular level does not totalize or even rule the definition of Sola Scriptura."

Surely not.

"The definition you presented is not what the Reformers intended and if you have heard people say this about Sola Scriptura then they are not presenting the doctrine accurately."

That sounds good to me.

I think I said this, but I'm not qualified to have a discussion on what folks like Calvin meant by the 5 solas. I couldn't even say who formulated them as such, or if somebody did.

I'm not sure it can be said there's any such thing as a "real" doctrine of Sola Scriptura that isn't qualified by the phrase "as understood by."

I spent plenty of time in Baptist life hearing about "sola scriptura" explicated in precisely the way I have described it above. If there's some kind of "official" sola scriptura, I just don't know what that is, but would be happy to hear about it.

Again, I'm talking about a particular, sloganized, very popular version (or deviation, if you will?) of the Reformation doctrine of Sola Scriptura. Nobody has every explained to me the Reformation doctrine of Sola Scriptura before, and I've never had the opportunity to do business with it.

Consider that an invitation. :0)

Anonymous said...

OK, take this from an old Catholic, now catholic "theologian" who's never studied out what "sola scriptura" is as a definition. I'll say with Kyle, even though I've never been a Baptist of any stripe, that I have never known of a highly defined doctrine of sola scriptura.

My understanding is that the statement is what it means - the Bible alone - that this is where we get everything we believe, and from whence we learn everything we need to need to know in order to live the Christian life. That's what it seems to mean. That's how it's used. That's what the Pastors who teach according to that "doctrine" come out of seminaries with and therefore, that's what they pass along to those in the pews.

Even IN the Bible, we "hear" the Apostles tell their disciples in the churches to obey what they have told them "whether by letter or by word of mouth." They were told to obey what was even then, effectively "Scripture" (Apostolic writings) and also Apostolic oral Tradition - what they had spoken to the people while with them. How they had taught them to live, to worship, etc. I know what Kyle means (I think) when he says that Tradition is the Church's reading of the Bible, but I'm not sure that's fully it - not how I would describe it anyway.

Now, I'd definitely say that Sacred Tradition (which has been passed down orally - perhaps then lived out and written down in some cases) is surely not opposed to the Revelation of God in Holy Scripture, and does not contradict it (cannot or it wouldn't be Sacred Tradition). So, it sort of does stand along with Scripture as something that both supports it and is supported by it. I don't think it's just how we've collectively read and lived Scripture over the years. Of course, it ends up being that - but more. I think, more. And that doesn't mean that something can be Traditionally held as True and be contradictory or opposed to Truth found in Scripture. I'll say again, this cannot be. That would be God being opposed to Himself.

Does Scripture have a kind of primacy in communcating God's Word and Message to mankind? Surely. And yes, even the Roman Catholic Church will say this. Can the Pope infallibly proclaim something to be True in clear opposition to reveled Truth in Scripture? Absolutely not, he would tell you himself.

I guess I'm saying that I don't see a need to try to defend sola scriptura, to find out what it "really means," or to hesitate saying, and I will, that it's not all about the Bible. The Bible doesn't tell you everything you need to know about being a Christian. There was some wisdom about all that that the Apostles passed on verbally, which, while not contradicting Scripture, may not have been explicitly IN Scripture.

I think it's worth pointing out the explicit vs. implicit too. Something about that was mentioned earlier and nothing else said about it. Can something be True (capital T) and not be explicitly spelled out in Scripture? Yes. I think so. Many would say no I'm sure. I wonder, even if something isn't even implicitly pointed to in Scripture, does that mean that it necessarily cannot be True? No. That would be my answer. I realize the implications and I'm fine with it - if you factor in what I've said earlier - we'll all be fine. :)

Now, at this point in time, I'm not fully convinced that the fullness of any "teaching authority" in the Church (which would define what's what) is located inside the Magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church. If I did, well, you know. Is some of it there? Hmm, I think so. OK, that's another subject. Anyway, which came first, the chicken or the Bible? Duuuhh, the chicken. Peace.

Love's Work said...

What is the difference in having the bible as an authority or tradition as authority? We all must interpret tradition or scripture! A good example is the Catholic debate about Baltshazzar's conception of Hell and whether he interpreted "Tradition" correctly about Christ's descent into hell.

The difference is that Protestants stop at an authorative Bible and the more traditional groups stop at an authoratative "Magisterium." I would also say that doctrines such as the Trinity and the Incarnation are in scripture and anyone who disputes that is not wanting to see what is there, it is as simple as that.

The early councils did clarify in Greek philophical language what was already evident to the Early Christians about Christian Monotheism as Richard Bauckham argues in "God Crucified". Tradition should be listened to, but it is not the grid through which we interpret the Bible. I am sure some will say, "yeah, but how do we know that we have the "right" interpretation?". Well I am a Christian and I believe that God has created us in such a way that we can make valid statements about texts and our world. A famous philosopher once said, "And that is all I have to say about that."

Kyle said...

Blake, I'm not sure it's as simple as that; it took the Church three and four hundred years to see that those things are so plainly in Scripture.

And for me, such discussions about respecting tradition are about making progress in the Church's reading such that we don't have to spend another few hundred years to get to the Trinity again.

And just so we're clear...! Tradition is not some kind of "authority" that exist apart from or even next to Scripture; any authority that any "traditional" reading has will be derivative from the Scripture.

I do not, or am I here, arguing for an authoritative magisterium; rather, I'm arguing that one must in some way do business with the traditions and broader Tradition of the Church.

Love's Work said...


I am in agreement that we must do justice to the creeds. I also agree that there was long debate about the exact nature of the trinity and the deity of Christ among the Church's theologians. I am in agreement with everything in the first councils except for the fact that I tend to be an Iconoclast so I do think that the creeds got a lot right.

I am sure you know Pelikan argues that the Early Christian Liturgy was actually what guided the rejection of certain aberrant views of the Deity of Christ and the Doctrine of God. Any theology that could not encompass the theology of the Church's liturgy was rejected.

Basically it seems that the Church in its worship from a very early time had, to be anachronistic, orhtodox views of these things they just had not formulated them in such a way to defend them against heretics. I would argue it was the same with the Canon and other essential doctrines of the faith.

Thanks for the clarifications. You are right that popular expositions miss the point of Sola Scriptura. I have seen some people deny the validity of using extracanonical literature to shed light on the New Testament. I had a prof. at Boyce make a student cry because he pointed out that the NT quoted from 2nd Temple Literature extensively. The problem is that most people who claimed to be in the Reformed stream of thought do not even understand what it means!

In Christ,

Kyle said...

Sounds good to me, man.