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

Monday, September 29, 2008

So much for sola over solo

(For an explanation of the sola vs. solo distinction, see here.)

In May of this year I wrote a post titled "Denominational Renewal", about the conference by that name that had taken place here in St. Louis in February, and which I attended. Presently, there is an ongoing five-week discussion about that conference over at "Common Grounds Online". What got my attention, however, were Bob Mattes's recent comments on Jeremy Jones's talk given at the conference. Bob described Jeremy's proposal in this way:

He [Jeremy] proposes to replace sectarianism with Reformed Catholicism theology. He says that we are part of the universal Catholic Church, that the enemy isn't the church down the street but the world, flesh, and the devil. ... But then he says that we need to recovery of the ecclesial identity of the original Reformed fathers, who saw themselves as a branch of Roman Catholic Church. ... Jeremy offers the illustration of a house. The foundation of the house is the Word, the 1st floor is Catholic tradition in the Roman sense. The 2nd floor has the subdivided apartments of Protestantism. TE Jones says that if you’re Protestant, you rest on top of the Roman Catholic tradition - that they mediated the Catholic faith to us. Hence, it is all one building. He claims that a Reformed Catholic identity illumens a broader historic belief, that the creeds come from RCC and the Reformers tried to reform the Roman Catholic Church, not pitch it. He says that they did not alter the core doctrines ... but reformed those they found in error within the bounds of the RCC tradition which remained substantially unaltered. ... He says that this provides a different scale of importance in our theology, so that Catholic creedal orthodoxy becomes more basic than Reformed theology. (emphasis his)

Bob disagrees with Jeremy's position. Bob responds a few paragraphs later with this critical, noteworthy paragraph. He writes:

No, the Reformers bypassed the Roman doctrines to study the Bible itself from the original languages. They pitched the sacrifice of the mass, transubstantiation, purgatory, Mariology, leadership structure, etc. They did not attempt to reform the Roman church itself in the long run, but strove to recapture the truths of, and build upon, the foundation of Christ and His Word directly. They also used the early creeds which were developed before the corruption of Rome trampled the early church into oblivion. In response to the Reformation, the Roman church anathematized the gospel at the Council of Trent. The doctrines canonized at Trent weren’t new. Rome’s long-time doctrines were simply codified there. How can one build upon such a foundation? Surely this is a foundation of sand which our Lord contrasted to the Rock of our salvation. (emphasis his)

When I have pointed out that the Protestant position reduces in principle to biblicism (see, for example, here and here), the reply I typically receive is that I have failed to appreciate fully the distinction between sola scriptura and solo scriptura. Sola scriptura, Keith Mathison tells us, embraces the creeds and the teachings of the Church fathers. But then when people (like Jeremy) start referring to that catholic tradition that would be included in sola scriptura but not in solo scriptura, they're told that the Reformers built on Scripture alone, because the Church that Christ founded had long been trampled into oblivion.

Of course the gates of hell cannot prevail against the Church. Therefore confessional Protestants must posit the existence during that long period of apostasy of at least one person in every generation who believed in justification by faith alone. But since in Protestantism the Church Christ founded is really just the set of all the elect, there is no compelling reason even to posit that anyone from the time of the death of the last Apostle to Luther heard the gospel and was saved, because the only way for hell to prevail over the Church would be to prevent the set of all the elect from attaining the number of members God intends it to have. And that's impossible. So a long period of time without any elect persons on earth is fully compatible with Christ's promise not to allow the gates of hell to prevail against the Church, if the Church is merely the set of all the elect. But just to be safe (perhaps because of vestiges of the notion of a visible Church), Protestants still want to posit a priori that some proto-Lutherans were alive during the long apostasy, even if they have no evidence that such persons existed.

At the time Luther came along, how long had the apostasy been going on? Alister McGrath has pointed out that the notion of justification by "faith alone" was unknown from the time of St. Paul to the Reformation, calling it a "genuine theological novum". According to McGrath, the Council of Trent "maintained the medieval tradition, stretching back to Augustine, which saw justification as comprising both an event and a process -- the event of being declared to be righteous through the work of Christ and the process of being made righteous through the internal work of the Holy Spirit." (Reformation Thought, 1993, p. 115) McGrath is very clear that Luther's notion of justification by faith alone is not that of St. Augustine. Trent's position followed that of St. Augustine, not Luther. B.B. Warfield likewise, condemns the Council of Orange (529 AD) as "semi-semi-Pelagianism", as I pointed out here. So for these Protestants the great apostasy was at least a thousand years in length.

The Protestant argument goes like this.

(1) Clearly Luther was right about justification.


(2) Everyone who preceeded Luther and held a view of justification contrary to that of Luther was wrong.

(3) But everyone [so far as we can tell from history] at least from Augustine on (and perhaps even back to the first century) held a view of justification contrary to that of Luther.

(4) Justification [as imputation alone] by faith alone is the heart of the gospel, the doctrine on which the Church stands or falls.


(5) The Church was apostate from the time of Augustine (or even all the way back to the first century) until Luther.

But one man's modus ponens is another's modus tollens. In other words, how much ecclesial deism and ecclesial docetism does it take to call into question the perspicuity assumption underlying premise (1)? At what point does one say, "Wait a second; maybe Luther's interpretation isn't right"? This is the heart of the paradigm shift I have spoken of here.

I talked to a Reformed Protestant recently who said that returning to the Catholic Church would require giving up all the "theological development" (his terms) within Protestantism from the time of Luther and Calvin to the present. Whether that is true or not, Protestants like Mattes seem to have no problem giving up the first 1000 - 1500 years of theological development. If that is the case, then it is not just 'development' per se that such Protestants are adhering to, but rather 'the development I approve of'. And that seems to be the individualism of biblicism, precisely why there is no principled difference with respect to individualism between sola scriptura and solo scriptura.

Sean Michael Lucas, in commenting on Jeremy's talk writes the following:

... it strikes me that [Jeremy's] proposal for renewing theology holds out great hope for "creative theological thinking." And yet, if we pay attention to those witnesses of the past, like Irenaeus and Tertullian, they stressed not their creativity, but their unoriginality. For example, when Irenaeus sought true missional impact, he stressed "this kerygma and this faith the Church, although scattered over the whole world, diligently observes, as if it occupied but one house, and believes as if it had but one mind, and preaches and teaches as if it had but one mouth." Perhaps the agenda for renewing theology should not be to look for "creatively faithful, constructive theology," but for a continuing witness to "the faith once delivered to the saints" (Jude 3). (my emphasis)

This is the same Irenaeus who around 180 AD wrote:

"We do put to confusion all those who ... assemble in unauthorized meetings; [we do this, I say,] by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church [of Rome], on account of its preeminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the apostolical tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere." (Against Heresies 3.3.2)

This is the same Tertullian who around 200 AD wrote:

"Was anything withheld from the knowledge of Peter, who is called the rock on which the church should be built,' who also obtained the keys of the kingdom of heaven, with the power of loosing and binding in heaven and on earth? Moreover, if Peter was reproached [by Paul] because, after having lived with the gentiles, he later separated himself from their company out of respect for persons, the fault certainly was one of procedure and not of doctrine." (Prescription Against the Heretics, 22)

Sean wants unoriginality. But, according to McGrath, originality is precisely what Luther offers. Luther's originality doesn't count as originality, however, because it matches (sufficiently) Sean's interpretation of Scripture. Whatever the fathers say that doesn't match the Protestant's interpretation of Scripture (e.g. claims about Peter being the rock, Rome having the primacy, bishops, apostolic succession, Mary as "Mother of God", prayers for the dead, prayers to saints, Eucharist as sacrifice, etc.) is ipso facto an originality and can thus be dismissed. Originality, therefore, means by definition, any claim or teaching by any post-Apostolic writer over the last 2000 years whose claim goes beyond what is allowed by the Protestant's own interpretation of Scripture. Unoriginality, likewise, means by definition, any claim or teaching by any post-Apostolic writer over the last 2000 years whose claim fits with one's own interpretation of Scripture (and/or the particular confessions one has adopted as representing what one believes to be the best interpretation of Scripture).

We find here that in sola scriptura as a practice, the content of the authoritative extra-biblical tradition that stands along with (but subordinate to) Scripture is by definition whatever can be found in the last twenty (but especially the first few) centuries of Church history that agrees with the particular Protestant interpretation in question. Solo scriptura is doing all the work to determine what gets included in or excluded from what is presented as the sola scriptura package. Sola is the advertisement photo; solo is what's inside the package. The method being used is not that of reading-Church-history-forward to see how the Church grows organically, but rather, starting from Scripture as read through Protestant lenses, and then reading back into Church history, to try to find whatever is there that agrees with one's own interpretation of Scripture. Any heretics throughout history could use the same method, and call their doctrine the 'apostolic' doctrine because by study and interpretation they 'derived' it from the writings of the Apostles. That methodological parallel should give any Protestant serious pause, to ask these questions: "What makes our activity of study and interpretation so much better that we're immune from heresy? And why is our ecclesial deism any better than theirs?"

Angels Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael, on this feast of Michaelmas, do battle against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places, so that the full visible unity of all Christians may be restored, according to the heart of Jesus revealed in His prayer in St. John 17. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.


Bethany Blanchard Coleman said...

Thanks so much for this post! You've elucidated, so accessibly, the first domino that fell in my trail away from Reformed theology and into the Catholic Church (official as of Saturday!). Thanks for giving me a handy link to pass on to some rather puzzled family and friends, where my own attempts to explain have been less than effective. I look forward to diving deeper into your blog! Peace.

Bryan Cross said...

Thanks Bethany! Welcome to my blog. And congratulations on becoming Catholic!

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Tom B. said...


You're nearly a neighbor. I used to live in Annapolis, and wonder if you were Reformed Presbyterian there? I was a member at Annapolis EP (which is PCA, not EPC).

Peace in Christ,

CatholicPresbyterian said...

The interesting thing about the magesterial reformers is, while many who today do pratice solo scriptura, I dont believe that they did. I think they practiced something even Matthison might push back on a bit. I've gathered this from my readings of Calvin and some of the earliest reformed confessions that i can find. It seems to me that tradition was actually a huge part of Calvin's theological works, you cant read one good sized chunk out of the institutes without seeing his reliance on his forefathers in the faith. So while heralding 'Sola Scriptura', he seemed to assume a whole lot more when he actually did Theology...just some thoughts