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

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Whose Tradition? Which Orthodoxy?

UPDATE (September 9, 2009): Neal Judisch and I have posted a more thorough evaluation of Keith's book here.

I just finished reading Keith Mathison's book The Shape of Sola Scriptura (Canon Press, 2001). His article titled "Solo Scriptura: The Difference a Vowel Makes" appeared in the March/April 2007 issue of Modern Reformation. In May of this year, I wrote a response to that article, and posted it here. Now, having read Mathison's book, I can say that the fundamental problem with the thesis of that article is also the fundamental problem with the thesis of this book.

The fundamental flaw in the book is that it is written as if there is not and never was any such thing as sacramental magisterial authority. I have argued previously that there is no middle position between sacramental magisterial authority and individualism. Since Mathison does not recognize any sacramental magisterial authority, therefore his sola scriptura position is essentially individualistic. But the thesis of his book is that while solo scriptura should be rejected because of its individualism, sola scriptura avoids individualism and should be accepted. So the heart of the problem is that Mathison is rejecting a position for its individualism while proposing another position that is, unbeknownst to him, in essence no less individualistic.

Throughout the second half of the book Mathison continually and repeatedly tries to distinguish sola scriptura from what he calls solo scriptura. According to Mathison solo scriptura is the notion that the Bible is the "sole basis of authority" -- Scripture does not need to be interpreted by the Church, and the Church's interpretation has no authority. Nor does tradition have any authority or provide any necessary context for the proper interpretation and understanding of Scripture. Sola scriptura, by contrast is, according to Mathison, a position that recognizes the actual but subordinate authority of tradition, affirms that Scripture must be interpreted in and by the Church, and acknowledges that the Church's interpretation is authoritative.

Mathison recognizes and rejects solo scriptura because of its intrinsic individualism. But because Mathison writes as though there
is not and never was any such thing as sacramental magisterial authority, he has no way of offering a non-individualistic manner of determining where is the Church and which tradition is authoritative. So "the Church" ends up being 'all those who interpret the Bible like I do'. Mathison writes:

"It is only within the Church that we find the Scripture interpreted rightly, and it is only within the Church that we find the gospel." (p. 268)
But Mathison does not think this calls into question the correctness of Luther's interpretation and Luther's gospel. That is because "Church" is, for Mathison, picked out by "gospel". So there is an immediate tension here. Mathison claims that we should identify the "right interpretation" and the "gospel" by locating the Church, but Mathison himself identifies the Church by its adherence to the "right interpretation" and the "gospel" as determined by Mathison himself. He recognizes that this is a problem. He writes:

"[T]he true interpretation of Scripture is found only in the Church. Yet the true Church is identified largely by its adherence to the true interpretation of Scripture. How then do we identify the Church when there are numerous communions claiming to be the Church? Is it possible to answer the question without falling into radical subjectivism or logical circularity? ... How does one even begin to proceed when the criteria for discerning the true Church and the criteria for determining the true interpretation of Scripture are largely reciprocal." (p. 319)
In trying to answer this question Mathison seems to show no awareness of the concept of sacramental magisterial authority. (see page 320) He tries to answer this question by saying that we must appeal to the "corporate witness of the Holy Spirit". (p. 321) He then acknowledges that this requires that we know what are the Christian churches. (p. 321) So how do we determine which are the Christian churches? Mathison's answer is that we see whether they adhere to the "apostolic regula fidei", which he defines as the Nicean and Chalcedonian creeds.

But without sacramental magisterial authority, the early creeds have no more authority than one's own interpretation of Scripture. One can appeal to one's own interpretation of Scripture to reject the results of those councils the way Mathison himself appeals to his own interpretation of Scripture to reject the fifth, [sixth?], and seventh Ecumenical Councils. Mathison appeals to the "unanimous witness" within Christendom that was "miraculously" produced by the Holy Spirit regarding the Nicene Creed. (p. 321) But Mathison seems unaware that the formation of the Nicene Creed involved anathematizing and excommunicating no small number of persons, namely, the Arians and Pneumatomachi who denied the deity of Christ and the Holy Spirit, respectively. Christendom was united around the Creed because those who disagreed with the Creed were excommunicated by sacramental magisterial authority. The unity regarding the Creed was not based on a miraculous corporate burning in the bosom; it was based on sacramental magisterial authority. Mathison then writes:

Christ's sheep hear their Shepherd's voice in the true books of Scripture, and they hear His voice when His truth is confessed in the churches. What this means practically speaking is that believers may immediately rule out such communions as the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Mormons, which reject the Holy Spirit's corporate testimony to Christ's sheep throughout history. (p. 322)
But without sacramental magisterial authority, nothing but one's own interpretive preference for the decision of Nicea over that of the Arians makes the Arians not part of the fold of Christ's sheep. (One learns this quickly if one appeals to the Nicene Creed in a debate with Jehovah's Witnesses.) Without sacramental magisterial authority, the historic creeds have no authority; the creeds merely agree or disagree with one's own interpretation of Scripture. And in that case, Mathison's appeal to the "Holy Spirit's corporate testimony to Christ's sheep" is an appeal that any individulist can affirm, for the persons identified as "Christ's sheep" will still be determined by each individual's personal interpretation of Scripture, not by any sacramental magisterial authority.

I have described [here and here] this individualism as analogous to each person shooting an arrow into a blank wall, and then painting the target around their arrow. Each person decides what is orthodoxy and where is the Church based on his own interpretation of Scripture. That is no less individualistic than not even pretending to submit to a Church or a tradition. But it is more self-deceptive, because it allows one to seem to be submitting to something other than oneself, when in actuality it is a submission to an 'orthodoxy' and 'Church' of one's own making. The fact that two or more arrows can land on the same spot does not make the process any less individualistic than if I am the only one in the world with that particular interpretation.

Mathison rightly rejects individualism. He also deplores the fragmentation of the visible Church. But because his position does not recognize the existence of sacramental magisterial authority, what he offers is no less individualistic than the solo scriptura position that he rejects. There is a way to avoid individualism (see here). It does not consist in finding "those who interpret Scripture like me", but requires finding those with the sacramental magisterial authority (derived from the Apostles) to say how Scripture should be interpreted, what is orthodoxy, what is heresy, and which traditions are authoritative. Without sacramental magisterial authority, "sola scriptura" necessarily reduces to "solo scriptura".


Bryan Cross said...

I just came across Greg Crowhill's review of Mathison's book. I see that my conclusion is very much in line with that of Greg's. Greg writes:

[BOQ] Keith has done a good job of trying to defend a Protestant perspective on Scripture and Tradition that is more historical and reasonable than what we typically hear. He is right that Scripture has to be read and interpreted in and by the church, which means that creeds, councils and church fathers have to have some authority.

But there are two large, glaring problems with his thesis. First, the assertion that Reformed Protestantism represents the current expression of the faith of the early church is very questionable -- to the point of being amusing. Second, and more to the point of the book, he is unable to establish an objective criteria to explain why such-and-so churches and such-and-so councils should be considered authoritative while others should not. On the one hand, why include standards that exclude the Copts? On the other hand, why exclude the 7th ecumenical council, which was accepted by the entire church before the east-west split? And why should that particular split make any difference?

Without some standard by which Keith can say "this is the church," all his judgments fall under the very same criticisms he levels against the "solo" scriptura advocates -- they reduce to personal opinion.[EOQ]

Sarah said...

Thanks for linking to this post from the Retractiones blog. I've been reading your blog for several months now. I swam the Tiber this last Easter but my husband is currently PCA. (We both grew up in the churches of Christ.) I find your thoughts very useful in understanding our differences, because you articulate so much of what I am still trying to figure out how to talk about. Your review of this book is very helpful. Thank you for posting it.