"Let unity, the greatest good of all goods, be your preoccupation." - St. Ignatius of Antioch (Letter to St. Polycarp)

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Dr. Robert Godfrey on sola scriptura: Part 1

Dr. Godfrey
Dr. Robert Godfrey is the President of Westminster Theological Seminary in Escondido, California. He wrote an article titled "What we mean by Sola Scriptura", which originally appeared as the first chapter in Sola Scriptura! The Protestant Position on the Bible, edited by Don Kistler.

His article starts by distinguishing between "Protestant Catholics" and "Roman Catholics". This is odd for two reasons, first because he uses titles that each side generally does not use for itself. Protestants generally do not refer to themselves as Catholics, let alone "Protestant Catholics". And Catholics do not generally refer to themselves as "Roman Catholics". We are Catholics, and if we are in the Latin Rite Particular Church within the Catholic Church, we are properly "Latin Rite Catholics", not Roman Catholics. Second, Dr. Godfrey's terminology suggests that both Protestants and Catholics are members of a larger genus, i.e. Catholic. And yet Dr. Godfrey immediately goes on to say that [Roman] Catholics believe that Protestants departed from the [Catholic] Church in the sixteenth century, and that Protestants think that Catholics departed from [the Catholic] Church even earlier. But if both sides think the other side departed from the Catholic Church, then neither side would agree with Dr. Godfrey that both sides are part of a larger genus, i.e. "the Catholic Church". So he opens his article with semantics opposed to both sides of the disagreement.

His second paragraph focuses on the main topic of his article:

The theme of this opening chapter is one of the issues that still divides us: the source of religious truth for the people of God. (The other main issue, that of how a man is made right with God, has been dealt with in the book Justification by Faith ALONE!, published by Soli Deo Gloria in 1995.) As Protestants we maintain that the Scripture alone is our authority. Our Roman opponents maintain that the Scripture by itself is insufficient as the authority of the people of God, and that tradition and the teaching authority of the church must be added to the Scripture. (my emphasis)

Dr. Godfrey says here that the Protestant conception of sola scriptura is that "Scripture alone is our authority". If we took this statement at face value, it would imply that no Protestant pastor or session or presbytery or general assembly has any authority over any Protestants. But of course in practice such Protestant offices and bodies do exercise some sort of authority over those persons who have placed themselves under them. So either Dr. Godfrey is not being careful here, or he is endorsing the individualism of private judgment and solo scriptura. Later in the article he says, "I am eager to join that historic train of Protestant apologists to defend the doctrine that the Scripture alone is our ultimate religious authority." Notice the word 'ultimate'. So what he means in this earlier statement is that Scripture alone is our ultimate authority". And yet perhaps the slip is revealing, showing the logical implication of sola scriptura.

But he is also here presenting a straw man of the Catholic position. Yes, the Catholic Church would claim that Scripture alone is not sufficient as the authority of the people of God. But no, the Catholic Church has never claimed that tradition and the teaching authority of the Church "must be added to" the Scripture. Rather, the Catholic Church teaches that the oral tradition and teaching authority of the Church already existed, from the day of Pentecost on, in the teaching and preaching of the Apostles. The New Testament Scriptures were eventually added to the oral tradition and to the teaching authority of the Church. The Church (with her teaching authority and oral tradition) existed first, without the New Testament. But the Church has never existed without her teaching authority, and without the oral tradition in the form of the preaching of the Apostles.

When Protestants start defending sola scriptura in terms of the final or ultimate authority of Scripture, they tend to gloss over an ambiguity in the word "final" or "ultimate". (I discussed this in my post titled "C. Michael Patton on sola scriptura".) It is not difficult to show that since Scripture is the Word of God, and obviously nothing can have more authority than the Word of God, that therefore the Scripture must be the "ultimate" [i.e. highest] intrinsic authority in the Church. But no one disagrees with that. That is not what the Protestant-Catholic disagreement concerning sola scriptura is about. The Catholic Church teaches that her leadership is the servant of the Word of God. (CCC 86) So the point of disagreement (between Protestants and the Catholic Church) regarding sola scriptura is not primarily about which authority in the Church has the most or highest intrinsic authority, but is rather about who has final or highest interpretive and teaching authority, and on what ground or basis these persons have such interpretive and teaching authority. (The disagreement between Protestants and the Catholic Church regarding whether the Word of God was also passed down as oral Tradition depends for its resolution on who has interpretive and teaching authority to give the authoritative ecclesial judgment on this question.)

Bound up in the [Protestant] concept of sola scriptura is much more than the mere notion that Scripture is the highest intrinsic authority in the Church. The Protestant conception of sola scriptura includes the assumption of perspicuity, namely, that the Scripture is sufficiently clear and plain that whatever is necessary to be believed for salvation can be known by everyone who reads it. This perspicuity assumption is taught nowhere in Scripture or Tradition; it is a novel assumption imported by Protestants from outside Scripture and Tradition to the process of interpreting Scripture. We do not find it in the first 1500 years of the Church, just as if the Apostles did not teach any such doctrine to the Church. Nor would the Apostles likely have done so, given that the printing press was not invented until the fifteenth century. So the Catholic response to the sixteenth century Protestant claim regarding perspicuity is "Who told you that perspicuity is true, and what ecclesial authority did he have?" But that is not the point I want to make here.

I want to focus not on the origin but on the implications of the perspicuity assumption. The perspicuity assumption implies that we do not need any interpretive authority, if by 'need' we are referring to only what is necessary to know and believe for salvation. (And what is more necessary than that?) Yes we still need to be fed regularly on the Word, and we need fellowship with other believers, etc. But, if the perspicuity assumption is true, then we do not need any interpretive authority; we each can figure out on our own from Scripture whatever is necessary for our salvation. And whatever else might be good to know, we can decide for ourselves whether we want to learn it, and from whom to learn it, etc. So right here, in an implicit assumption hidden behind the more obvious and explicit definition of sola scriptura, is the basis for the individualism that makes each Protestant interpreter his own final interpretive authority. If a person reads Scripture and comes to the conclusion that what is sufficient for salvation is "asking Jesus into my heart" (though the expression is not in Scripture), then anything else that anyone might add to that is mere man-made window-dressing. "Away with institutions and rituals. Away with hierarchies and all these doctrinal standards that just end up dividing Christians." Perspicuity implies that each person gets to decide for himself from Scripture what is necessary and sufficient for salvation. And as a result, whatever falls outside of the individual's determination from Scripture of what is necessary for his own salvation is dismissed as superfluous.

One danger here, however, is that "salvation" is assumed to be an all or nothing sort of thing. You either go to heaven, or you don't. So all we need to worry about is what is necessary to go to heaven. But what if salvation is more complicated than that? What if there are gradations of happiness in heaven, and our measure of happiness in the life to come has something to do with how we live in this life?
What if we are called to be saints in this life, to be perfect, and yet we only do the very minimum, squandering a life-time of opportunities for acts of heroic virtue? In that case, the minimalistic and nominalistic approach to Christianity that seeks to do whatever just gets people inside the pearly gates is a misleading theology that potentially detracts from our eternal happiness. Perspicuity is not an innocent assumption; it has very serious implications.

If as perspicacity implies we do not need an interpretive authority, then there is no point to a Magisterium having authority in perpetual succession from the Apostles. Perspicuity makes the Church's Magisterium both superfluous, obsolete and presumptive, for surely Jesus would not have established an enduring interpretive authority if we did not need such a thing. Therefore, given the perspicuity of Scripture, it follows logically that those persons claiming to have interpretive authority from the Apostles are at best mistaken and at worst presumptive, having at some point arrogated to themselves an authority that they do not have.

Perspicuity in this way is incompatible with the Catholic Church's long-standing teaching regarding the role and authority of the bishops in succession from the Apostles. The Protestant notion of perspicuity entails and grounds the ecclesial consumerism that in practice leads to the vast proliferation of sects, for since there is no given interpretive authority, then by default we are left to accumulate to ourselves teachers who teach according to what we believe. (2 Tim 4:3) And both the explosion of competing Protestant sects and their inability to reconcile with each other over the past five hundred years undermines the notion that we have no need [if not in the sense of personal salvation, at least in the sense of corporate unity] for a living interpretive authority. Protestant history testifies that we need a perpetual interpretive authority in order to maintain ecclesial unity. So in this way Protestant history testifies against perspicuity, and in favor of what the Catholic Church has always taught about her bishops and the nature of their authority as passed on through sacramental succession from the Apostles.

How does Dr. Godfrey defend his claim that Scripture alone is the ultimate ecclesial authority? He appeals to Scripture itself. He writes, "I believe that it can be shown that this position [i.e. sola scriptura] is the clear position of Scripture itself." And that is what he proceeds to do, defends his position by appealing to Scripture.

But already he has begged the question, possibly without realizing it. Consider what is implicit in his claim that "it can be shown that [my] position is the clear position of Scripture". He is implicitly assuming here that no heretic could show [to that heretic's own satisfaction, and to those likeminded to him] that his own heresy is "the clear position of Scripture". For if heretics can in principle do this, then the fact that someone can show [to his own satisfaction and that of those likeminded to him] that his own position is "the clear position of Scripture" does not show whether that position is heretical or orthodox, in which case we would need the living Church authority to adjudicate the question for us. But the need for living Church authority to decide interpretive questions for us is precisely what Dr. Godfrey is rejecting, for as I have pointed out above, perspicuity is bound up in the concept of sola scriptura. If we needed a living church authority to adjudicate interpretive questions for us, then Luther and the early Protestants would not have been justified in defying the Catholic Magisterium regarding the interpretation of Scripture. Nor would they have been justified in leaving the Catholic Church, even given the abuses and corruption of that time. The whole Protestant separation/movement would be thereby undermined. Therefore, Dr. Godfrey's methodology, if it is to be consistent with Protestantism, must assume
at least implicitly that in principle no heretic can show [to that heretic's his own satisfaction and to that of those likeminded to him] that his own heresy is "the clear position of Scripture". But that assumption is justified only if the Protestant assumption regarding perspicuity is true. And thus in that way Dr. Godfrey's approach to defending sola scriptura begs the question, for it assumes implicitly precisely what it is trying to prove, namely that the Protestant notion that Scripture alone can be our ultimate authority without the need for Church authority to adjudicate interpretive disagreements is true.

What I am pointing out here is another example of talking past each other, and missing the *paradigmatic* difference between Catholicism and Protestantism. (I have written about this in my "Two Paradigms" post.) To approach Scripture as though each individual has the authority to determine definitively for him or herself what it says, is not to approach the Scripture in a neutral manner. It is to approach Scripture as though the first 1500 years of Christianity were deeply misguided, and Protestantism is true. In order to talk about the issue of sola scriptura, therefore, we have to step back from debating the interpretation of the Scriptures themselves. That is the point Tertullian made here, and St. Vincent of Lerins made here.

We have to examine how exactly the Church has operated from the beginning regarding the resolution of disputes over the interpretation of Scripture. Only if the practice of the early Church was to treat Scripture as self-interpreting, and as though there was no need for adjudication of interpretive disagreements by the Apostles and bishops would we be justified in approaching Scripture as though we ourselves have the authority to determine definitively for ourselves what it says. If, however, the Church did not treat Scripture as self-interpreting, but relied upon the decisions of the bishops to determine what is the orthodox and authorized teaching of the Church and the authoritative interpretation of Scripture, then for us to approach Scripture as though the bishops are not the interpretive authorities of Scripture is performative, if not propositional, heresy.

There is no neutral interpretive starting point here. Either we come to Scripture recognizing and submitting to the ecclesial authority of the bishops, or we come to Scripture rejecting [knowingly or unknowingly] the ecclesial authority of the bishops. And that was no less true during the sixteenth century than it is today. Of course a person can come to Scripture unaware of the authority of the bishops, or in a state of humility toward the bishops as he or she seeks to determine whether the Apostles gave such authority to the bishops. So the impossibility of neutrality here concerns those who know that the Apostles appointed bishops and gave them perpetual authority in the Church. If we wish to know how to approach the Scriptures, we must determine what those bishops taught about their own authority in relation to the deposit of faith and the interpretation of Scripture. Otherwise, we will beg the question and talk past each other in the Protestant-Catholic ecumenical dialogue.


mel said...

Wow. This is good. And a lot to read. I think I'm going to print it so I can work through it with highlighters and pens.

Oh, and with Scripture, ha!
Many thanks.

Eric Telfer said...

Hebrews 13:17 tells us to 'Obey those who rule over you, and be submssive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must given an account.' Interestingly, one Protestant commentary on this reads like this: 'The obedience commanded denotes assenting to someone else's directions, and submission means yielding one's contrary opinions in favor of another's.' The same commentary speaks of church leaders exercising *authority*, and also of the importance of remembering past and present church leaders. This sounds pretty Catholic and not much at all like Sola Scriptura. After all, presumably Hebrews 13:17 would apply to reading Scripture too.

Scripture is not clear on everything, but it is clear on certain things, i.e., obey those who rule over you, the importance of unity, the beginning of a church, the obviousness of bishops, elders, and deacons, the need to stick to the tradition handed down, the need to stick to the doctrine handed down, etc. Interestingly, many Protestants, while talking about how clear and easy it is to interpret Scripture, miss some of these more obvious and clear passages, interpret them in less obvious ways, or interpret them in the obvious way, but fail to see the significance,completely or to this or that degree.

But what are we to do with Hebrews 13:17 in light of Sola Scriptura? Who am I to obey? Who should I submit to on matters of interpretation? Protestants really have no interpretive authority to turn to within their own position because they define themselves in terms of their not being such an authority. They only have the Bible, which has to be interpreted, but which cannot be interpreted authoritatively because of the rejection of such an authority from the start. To give up on this rule may be to give up on Protestantism itself.

Interestingly, this rule applies even while the Church that canonized the Bible stands present. Further, it applies even when the Bible itself points to that Church and to the need to be obedient to and submit to those who rule over us in matters of faith and morals. Sola Scriptura is telling us that we do not need those who rule over us when it comes to interpretation. After all, we can understand the Bible well enough on our own. It is telling us that we do not need to submit or yield to someone else's interpretation for there is no authority aside from the Bible to appeal to. And yet the Bible itself says otherwise. At least on a very natural and obvious interpretation, it tells us to be obedient and submit to the Church.

With a simple walk through the Bible one discovers more of this, as I attempt to outline here:



Oso Famoso said...

Everytime Augustine is quoted to support either a) Sola Fide or b) Sola Scriptura, I want to rip my eyeballs out...

"But when proper words make Scripture ambiguous, we must see in the first place that there is nothing wrong in our punctuation or pronunciation. Accordingly, if, when attention is given to the passage, it shall appear to be uncertain in what way it ought to be punctuated or pronounced, let the reader consult the rule of faith which he has gathered from the plainer passages of Scripture, and from the authority of the Church, and of which I treated at sufficient length when I was speaking in the first book about things."
Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, 3,2:2 (A.D. 397).

Kepha said...

This is odd for two reasons, first because he uses titles that each side generally does not use for itself. Protestants generally do not refer to themselves as Catholics, let alone "Protestant Catholics".

Are you being rhetorical or have you never read anything from confessional Protestants before?

Principium unitatis said...

Hello kepha,

Perhaps you didn't read my claim carefully, otherwise you wouldn't have proposed your false dilemma.

I'm not claiming that *no* Protestants claim to be "Protestant Catholics". I claimed rather that Protestants generally do not refer to themselves as "Protestant Catholics". That claim is so widely recognized to be true that I don't need to support it.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Kepha said...

I see.

Eric Telfer said...

Some Protestants and 'independent' Christians make comments like this:

(1) There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ. I will never again be under the authority of the Catholic Church or any other modern day church, for all are examples of the deceits and traditions of men in action.

(2) Never again will I take for granted that another man's interpretation of Scripture is better than my own, unless he convinces me with reason and Scripture.

(3) I am happy to worship in most churches, but never will I be under their authority or assume they are right in interpreting Scripture, for all are full of men and so full of error. The Bible has all that a man needs and I can understand it well enough to have and develop a personal relationship with Christ.

(4) I have been in the bondage of an allegedly authoritative church in the past and the only way to break out of it is to read and disover the truth in Scripture for oneself.

All of these imply or are closely related to Sola Scriptura, which, it seems to me, is either (1) a way of saying that there is no authority outside the Bible in any sense at all (which includes no interpretive authority) at this time in history, or (2) that the individual simply rejects it, even if it does exist, choosing to be his own authority when interpreting Scripture.

There may be other possibilities.


Joseph said...


I agree with you and, therefore, disagree with Kepha. However, it is an interesting trend that I see in the Evangelical circles I associate with where more and more of them are calling themselves "catholic" with a lower case "c", then quickly qualifying that as "universal".

They will recite and agree with the Nicene Creed, yet they deny that "catholic", one of the four marks of the Church, means anything but their own definition, which is the universal spiritual bond between all denominations (even some Catholics). There is no sense or desire to reconcile "catholic" with "One, Holy, and Apostolic".

Eric Telfer said...

Godrey says:

'The Protestant position, and my position, is that all things necessary for salvation and concerning faith and life are taught in the Bible clearly enough for the ordinary believer to find it there and understand.'

Then why are there so many disagreements amongst Protestants? Who is right? Is Godfrey right over and against others? Wesley over and against Calvin? Calvin over and against Wesley? Luther?

At a very general level many seem to agree that the Gospel is good news and calls for a response to Christ, but beyond that there are a lot of disagreements, disagreements which can impact how one lives and what one does, i.e., whether one goes to church, whether one participates in sacraments like baptism and the Lord's supper, whether one goes the extra effort to do church particular works or good works in general beyond basic civility, how confident one is about the Bible and so whether one even reads the Bible, etc.

Further, many do not read the Bible. One Mormon missionary who spent two years in the Southern United States thought he would find all sorts of well read Bible Christians but concluded that most Christians he met did not know the Bible very well at all. Could an interpretive tradition with authority and with a substantial systematic theology laid out help? Yes.

Moreover, people generally do not read the Bible as though disconnected from traditions of interpretation. Just how influential those are and have been is many times underestimated. Protestantism, in general, still largely followed the groove cut out by the Catholic Church on so many things, i.e., the Trinity, Christ's divinity, the Virgin Birth, the Bodily Resurrection, the inspired Bible, etc. Individual readers raised or influenced by the Baptist tradition largely follow Baptist interpretations. Individuals influenced by Assembly of God interpretations still largely follow Assembly of God interpretations. In fact, I think for many the tradition of interpretation that they are associated with has more bearing than the Bible itself. This is not to imply that people cannot break out of those traditions or that they can only see the Bible through those traditions, as the relativists might have it. Interpretive traditions are not lenses that make it such that one can only see the Bible through that 'color', but they are conclusion sets that are sometimes highly influential on the reader, especially the superficial reader or the relative novice. And, as people become more interested in reading the Bible many also become more interested in commentaries and books about the Bible, which means they are more interested in this or that interpretive tradition, typically. As an example, how many actually came to the conclusion of a Protestant rapture on their own, without having first, in some way, been influenced by Darbyism and, say, the Scofield Reference Bible? How many come to the conclusion of Sola Fide without having been influenced by Luther in some way?

Additionally, I would point out that many of us, in modern times with modern minds, are no longer in the best mind-set to interpret Scripture critically. The high modern critical analysis from the university is often embedded in scientism, materialism, and chronological snobbery. Many times it is otherwise unappreciative of how early Christians and first century Jews would have understood Scripture. For example, the NT is impregnated with OT quotes and phrases, and so reading the NT well requires knowing the OT well, which requires understanding how first century Jews would have thought about the OT. But how many moderns know it that well? Sure, we can read the Bible and get a lot of the big points, but if each person were asked to teach the generations to come a systematic theology based on his reading of Scripture, what results would we get and who would be right if there is no interpretive authority to assist in the project?

Finally, we really are in a position now of competing interpretive traditions. Who is right? Who should we be influenced by? Which are traditions of men? Which are examples of unsound doctrine which the Bible warns against? Who are we to submit to when we do not know?


Jason J. Stellman said...

Hi Bryan,

Ever since your interaction with Mike Brown and me a couple weeks ago I've been thinking more about your charge of Protestant individualism. Anyway, I began a brief series over at De Regnis Duobus that you may want to weigh in on if you have the time.


The Dude said...

Just fyi, you've caught the attention of Steve Hays over at triablogue who posted a reply to this if you want to interact - http://triablogue.blogspot.com/2008/08/double-cross.html

He also responded to another post -

and must have been on a RC roll interacting with Dulles' Magisterium book which I'm guessing you might have read.

fwiw to you or your readers.