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

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Why Evangelicals are Returning to Rome

Recently I read an article titled "Why Evangelicals are Returning to Rome: The Abandonment of Sola Scriptura as a Formal Principle", written by an evangelical named Bob DeWaay who pastors "Twin City Fellowship" near Minneapolis. In this article DeWaay responds to an earlier article by Chris Armstrong in the February 2008 issue of Christianity Today titled "The Future Lies in the Past: Why evangelicals are connecting with the early church as they move into the 21st century". DeWaay is concerned about evangelicals not adhering to sola scriptura.

Perhaps we should ask why *anyone* should adhere to sola scriptura. Consider this philosophical analogy. In the early part of the last century, a particular philosophy known as "logical positivism" became dominant and highly influential. According to this philosophy, a statement is meaningful only if it can be *proved* true or false by means of public observation or experimentation. The fundamental problem with this philosophy, however, is that it itself cannot be proved true or false by means of public observation or experimentation. This philosophy is in this way intrinsically self-refuting. It fails its own test. Amazingly, however, logical positivism held sway for a good portion of the twentieth century, and still we feel its effects in the scientism that pervades much of contemporary thought (e.g. Richard Dawkins).

The very same sort of problem accompanies sola scriptura, because sola scriptura is taught nowhere in Scripture. Nowhere in Scripture do we find the notion that Scripture alone is authoritative in the Church, or that Scripture [considered in abstraction from the interpretive authority of the bishops of the Church] is the highest ecclesial authority, or that the individual's interpretation of Scripture is equally authoritative to that of the Church authorities. For this reason, sola scriptura fails its own test. (See Brian Harrison's article "Logic and the Foundations of Protestantism".)

On April 18, 1521,
Martin Luther made the following statement at the Diet of Worms: "Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason -- I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other -- my conscience is captive to the Word of God." The formal principle underlying Luther's statement, namely, that we do not need to submit to Church authorities unless they are able to persuade us that Scripture and/or plain reason also teaches what they are saying, is not itself found in Scripture. Thus when we examine sola scriptura carefully, we find it to be a mask. It presents itself, even in its very name, as seeking to obey God alone, or at least God above all else. That is part of what makes it so attractive to the person seeking to obey God. But in actuality, it itself is not from God, but is rather a man-made axiom, a *philosophical* and *methodological* presupposition brought to Scripture and to the process of interpreting and applying Scripture.

Implicit in sola scriptura as a philosophical presupposition is the notion that I have equal authority to all priests and bishops, councils and popes. (This becomes manifest in Luther's notion of the equal priesthood of all believers
.) Sola scriptura is for this reason, in its essence, an expression of the sin of pride, for pride does not wish to accept that others are better than us or have authority over us. That is also part of what makes sola scriptura attractive; it appeals to our pride, while masking itself as obedience to God alone, or to God above all else. This appeal to pride is why Protestants have no recognition of Saints. We're all equally saints according to the common Protestant mentality. But when all are saints, none are saints; the word 'saint' is evacuated of meaning. (The nominalistic notion of salvation as fundamentally a legal transaction also appeals to pride and discounts the possibility of recognizing Saints.) The very idea that some people are more holy and righteous than ourselves is repugnant to our pride. So is the idea that some have been given interpretive authority with regard to the Scripture. When we read the fathers, and see how they dealt with heretics who quoted Scripture (just as Satan did to Eve, and to Jesus in Matthew 4:6; Luke 4:11), we start to see through the mask of sola scriptura. We see that rebellion can mask itself under the pretense of a defense of truth and orthodoxy, and therefore we see that ecclesial authority determines orthodoxy, not that non-authoritative determinations of orthodoxy determine ecclesial authority. The latter is what leads to ecclesial consumerism; the former is its only antidote.

Part of what is attracting evangelicals to the Church is that there is so much more to Christianity than what can be known under the presupposition of sola scriptura. This is the thrust of books like Thomas Howard's Evangelical is not Enough, and Fr. Dwight Longenecker's More Christianity. DeWaay takes issue in particular with one line from Amstrong's CT article: "
From Dallas Willard, Richard Foster, and living, practicing monks and nuns, [evangelicals] must learn both the strengths and the limits of the historical ascetic disciplines." These monks and nuns, from Armstrong's point of view, are helping to lead evangelicals back to the 'ancient church'.

Yesterday, we got up early in the morning and drove to Kansas City, Missouri, to be with our friend Matille Thebolt as she was received as a Postulant into the Benedictines of Mary. (Update: She is now Sister Justina.)

Sister Justina

May 3, 2008

During the same Mass, Sister Crystal Wirth (Dartmouth '06) received the investiture in the habit of this same Benedictine Order from Bishop Robert Finn, the bishop of Kansas City -- St. Joseph, at Our Lady of Good Counsel Church. These Benedictines of Mary take only one full meal a day for most of the year. Their prayer schedule is intense. They are permitted to receive only one letter a month. They are not cloistered, but they are allowed to see their family only three times a year. They follow the Rule of St. Benedict, who was born about fifty years after St. Augustine died. (The Rule of St. Benedict clearly 'violates' the limitations of sola scriptura). All these are sacrifices these Sisters make to Jesus, to serve Him with purity and single-hearted devotion. Please pray for them. They are praying daily for us. Their lives are a living witness to evangelicals that there is much more to Christianity than what that well-intentioned but deeply flawed philosophical and methodological axiom (sola scriptura) would allow us to see.


Kim said...

Can't remember how I found that article by DeWaay yesterday (interesting that you brought it up so soon after I saw it. We must read some of the same blogs.), but I remember thinking how differently I would've taken his warning had I read it a year ago. I have a totally different opinion now that I see it in the context of church history.

Unknown said...

Let me know next time you are in KC!

Anonymous said...

Brian - great post as usual. I just don't know how to convey this to someone to whom it is not already plain.

You seem to effortlessly put into words a concept which I don't personally think is that complex in itself (yet is difficult to fully express). All of these things you mention, I knew in an instant the very first second that the thought popped into my head "where did the Bible come from?" And no sooner had I asked it of myself did I realize that my Protestant community was not capable of giving a satisfactory answer.

When I heard the Catholic argument for sola scriptura, I knew instantly that it was true. So I cannot fathom what it feels like to be convinced by the argument of sola scriptura and in fact it's mind boggling to me. When you don't understand how someone could believe something, it's difficult to debate them.

thetimman said...

Thanks for the info on Matille. I miss seeing her at the daily 8am at de Sales. I track of her after she left for Gricigliano, and it is good to see her settled with a traditional community.

God bless.

Eric Telfer said...


I am reminded of Mark Shea's _By What Authority?_ here. He notes extra-biblical (or disputable in terms of Biblical interpretation) Traditions that Evangelical Protestants and the Catholic Church agree upon:

(1) The Jesus Christ was God-Incarnate Tradition

(2) The Trinity Tradition

(3) The Table of Contents Tradition, at least with respect to the NT

(4) Tradition of Pro-Life Interpretation

(5) Tradition of Monogamy

(6) No Further Revelation Tradition

(7) Anti-Arianism Tradition

I would add the Fundamentals as asserted by the Fundamentalists, though the Catholic Church would not agree that these exhaust the fundamental issues:

(10) Inerrancy of Scripture

(12) The Virgin Birth of Jesus Christ

(12) The Atonement of Christ

(13) Christ's Bodily Resurrection

(14) The Historicity of the Miracles

(15) The Deity of Christ

The point that Shea wants to make, however, is that Evangelical Protestants are relying on extra-biblical tradition also, even while sometimes criticizing tradition when the Catholic-Protestant controversy arises. But if they are relying on extra-biblical tradition, what authority does that tradition rest on? By what or on what authority, if not the Bible alone, do such claims rest? In other words, Evangelical Protestants are not being consistent with the Sola Scriptura formula they insist on to fend off the Catholic Church.

I would also add that many, if not most, Evangelical Protestants probably do not even know what Sola Scriptura even means, even though they might have used it as it has been handed down in the Protestant tradition, which means we must also speak of the Tradition of Sola Scriptura, which itself is not in the Scripture in the affirmative and which is explicitly denied in Scripture when Scripture notes the Church to be the pillar and bullwark of truth.


Bryan Cross said...

Thanks Kim. It is interesting how we can have different 'gut'-level reactions (attraction / repulsion) toward the same sort of thing at different times, as we change our opinions about things.

Chad, will do. (I did think about dropping you a note before I left, but then I was only there for one day.)

Tim, I have yet to encounter a Protestant who will even engage me on the sola scriptura issue. I talked with one Protestant pastor not too long ago, and he just said to me, "Well, if you can't see sola scriptura in Scriptura, then I don't know what to say to you." In other words, my disbelief in sola scriptura was a kind of conversation-stopper for him. In his mind, we needed to have sola scriptura in common even to begin the conversation.

Timman, it was great seeing her again. She was back in STL for a week about two months ago, and Archbishop Burke actually made a surprise stop by during her birthday party. That was the highlight of the evening.

Eric, thank you for your comments drawing from Shea's book pointing out that not only is sola scriptura not in Scripture, but evangelicals rely on extra-biblical tradition in many ways, and are therefore not consistent in their application of sola scriptura.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Grifman said...


I really have no idea what you're talking about. With only a couple of exceptions (Table of Contents, end of revelation), most everything you mention can be defended by reference to scripture. So I honestly don't get your point.

And throwing "disputable in terms of Biblical interpretation" into that mix is a red herring - you're mixing apples and oranges. It has nothing to do with sola scriptura. Most of the items on your list fall into that category, so saying the list deals with Protestant "traditions" make it look like you're just trying to pad your list.