Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The 05/22/08 Dividing Line webcast - part 2.

I had little time over the extended Memorial Day weekend to spend on internet related issues, so I had to wait until this morning for the second installment of my treatment of the 05/22/08 The Dividing Line webcast. In the first installment, I dealt with the charges that James had leveled against D.H. Williams’ comments concerning Athanasius and Liberius; in this second thread, I shall address James’ basic contention concerning Athansius’ use of tradition. Rather than typing up excerpts from the webcast, I shall instead refer directly to James’ own essay (“Sola Scriptura and the Early Church”, in Sola Scriptura! - 1995) which formed the basis for James’ argumentation.

In his essay, James argues that: “Sola scriptura has long been the rule of believing Christian people, even before it became necessary to use the specific terminology against later innovators who would usurp the Scriptures supremacy in the church.” (Page 53.)

Here James is making the claim that early Church Fathers (such as Irenaeus, Augustine and Athanasius) believed in, and taught the doctrine of sola scriptura. This by default means that according to James’ assessment, the above mentioned Church Fathers believed and taught that: 1.) the Scriptures are the only infallible rule of faith; 2.) the Scriptures are not only materially sufficient, but also formally sufficient (i.e. the doctrine of perspicuity); 3.) the doctrine many of the early Church Fathers on the relationship between Scripture and tradition was essentially the same as the Reformers doctrine.

But is this the case? In five previous threads on this blog (HERE) I have touched on various aspects concerning the doctrine of sola scriptura. Also, since the inception of the this blog I have provided an excerpt (on the right-hand sidebar), from one of the most important essays on Scripture and tradition ever penned—A.N.S. Lane’s “Scripture, Tradition and Church: An Historical Survey” (for the entire essay GO HERE). All of this material suggests otherwise. But, there is much more, so in a sincere hope to put to rest the view that sola scriptura was taught by many of the early Church Fathers, I shall now provide even more evidence.

Lane’s essay forcefully argues for the position that he has termed “the coincidence view” as representative of the early Church. In other words, “Scripture and tradition coincide”; “Apostolic tradition is authoritative but does not differ from in content from the Scriputres”; the “teaching of the church is likewise authoritative but is only the proclamation of the apostolic message found in Scripture and tradition”; “the Holy Spirit preserves the church from error and leads her into the truth” (page 39). And further: “Scripture is materially sufficient (it contains all that is necessary) but formally insufficient (it needs an intpereter)”; “Tradition is necessary because heretics from Novation to Nestorius have misinterpreted Scripture”; but, “while tradition is the test to be applied to novelty which arises in the church and claims to be scriptural it should not be imagined that this test can be used to question the authoritative decisions of the church” (page 40).

One can immediately discern that Lane does not believe that the early Church maintained a belief in sola scritpura, for formal sufficiency (one of the necessary ingredients of the ‘traditional’ Protestant view) was denied.

And Lane is not only scholar who espouses this view. I have already invoked Dr. Williams, here are a few more examples:

In the ante-Nicene Church, the notion of sola Scriptura does not exist. But then there is also no notion of a tradition which is superior to Scripture, or which alters the essential content of the apostolic message as it is deposited in Scripture. There is simply no way of imagining possible conflict between the Christian Scripture and the Christian tradition—and, therefore, no necessity to choose between them.” (Albert Outler, “The Sense of Tradition in the Ante-Nicene Church”, in The Heritage of Christian Thought: Essays in Honor of Robert Lowery Calhoun, edited by Cushman and Grislis: New York, N. Y., 1965, p.29)

The fathers of the church spoke as they did because they regarded themselves as interpreters of the Scriptures. Therefore they are not to be made a substitute for the Scriptures; nor can the Scriptures be understood apart from the authoritative interpretation which tradition places upon them...if tradition is primitive, Protestant theology must admit that ‘Scripture alone’ requires redefinition.” (Jaroslav Pelikan, Obedient Rebels, Harper & Row: New York, N. Y., 1964, p. 180.)

“Along with total commitment to the Scriptures as the norm of all doctrine, a new and clear conviction concerning the authority of oral tradition began to develop. This oral tradition, handed down from generation to generation and going back through the apostles directly to Christ, in no way conflicted with the Scriptures. But it did aid the church in interpreting the Scriptures and particularly in summarizing the Christian faith and thus protecting Christians against the aberrations of Gnostics and heretics. To Tertullian and Irenaeus, who developed this position, such apostolic tradition, which faithfully transmitted Christ’s teaching, was, like Scripture, infallible.” (Robert D. Preus, “The View of the Bible Held by the Church: The Early Church Through Luther”, in Inerrancy, edited by Norman Geisler, Zondervan: Grand Rapids, MI, 1980, p. 359)

The divine Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, as opposed to human writings; and the oral tradition or living faith of the catholic church from the apostles down, as opposed tothe varying opinions of heretical sects—together form one infallible source and rule of faith. Both are vehicles of the same substance: the saving revelation of God in Christ; with this difference in form and office, that the church tradition determines the canon, furnishes the key and true interpretation of the Scriptures, and guards them against heretical abuse.” (Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, MI, 1981 ed., vol. 3, p. 606)

What was new here? Not the idea that the Bible, being God-given, speaks with God’s authority—that was common ground to both the Reformers and their opponents, and was indeed at that time an unquestioned Christian commonplace, like the doctrine of the Trinity. Nor was there anything new in the Reformer’s insistence that Bible reading is a sweet nourishing activity for Christian people. What was new was the belief, borne upon the Reformer’s by their own experience of Bible study, that Scripture can and does interpret itself to the faithful from within...From the second century on, Christians had assumed that the traditions and teachers of the church, guided by the Holy Spirit, were faithful to the biblical message, and that it was safe to equate Church doctrine with Bible truth.” (J. I. Packer, “‘Sola Scriptura’ In History and Today”, God’s Inerrant Word, ed. James Montgomery, pp. 44-45.)

“The ‘ancillary view’ is Lane’s term for the sixteenth-century Protestant view, in which tradition functions as an aid, but not a norm, for the interpretation of Scripture…In spite of claims to the contrary, the Reformers did not return to the ‘coincidence view’…The Reformation posited a degree of discontinuity in church history…” (Richard Bauckham, “Tradition In Relation To Scripture and Reason”, in Scripture, Tradition, and Reason, ed. Drewery & Bauckham, p. 122.)

And one more quote from Dr. Williams:

“Several publications by evangelicals have argued that the doctrine of sola scriptura was practiced, though implicitly, in the hermeneutical thinking of the early church. Such an argument is using a very specific agenda for the reappropriation of the early church: reading the ancient Fathers through the leans of post-Reformational Protestantism…Scripture can never stand completely independent of the ancient consensus of the church’s teaching without serious hermeneutical difficulties…the real question, as the patristic age discovered, is, Which tradition will we use to interpret the Bible?” (D. H. Williams, Retrieving the Tradition & Renewing Evangelicalism, pp. 229, 234.)

Not one of the above cited scholars is Catholic, and all (with the possible exception of Schaff) are within the Evangelical camp. So, I think it is quite safe to say that these men are not reading the early Church Fathers with some conciliar Catholic bias.

Now, I would like to urge my readers to listen to James’ webcast again (and if possible, read his above cited essay), and then read the early Church Fathers anew, and determine if James’ view is the correct one, or that of Lane and his supporters.

[BTW, in the many citations that James provided in his essay from the corpus of Athanasius, he conveniently left out this one:

“Moreover, aside from these scriptural utterances, let us also consider the tradition and teaching and faith of the Catholic Church from the beginning, that which the Lord has given, the apostles preached, and the fathers [596A] guarded. This is the foundation on which the Church is established, and the one who strays form it is not a Christian and should no longer be called so…”(Athanasius, Epistola I Ad Serapion – English trans. by Khaled Anatolis, Athanasius, Routledge: London, 2004, p. 227.)

James is certainly not the only person who has advanced the notion that the early Church taught the doctrine of sola scriptura; back in the mid-19th century, the Anglican scholar, Dr. Pusey, attempted to the same, to which John Henry Newman responded:

You have made a collection of passages from the Fathers, as witnesses in behalf of your doctrine that the whole Christian faith is contained in Scripture, as if, in your sense of the words, Catholics contradicted you here. And you refer to my Notes on St. Athanasius as contributing passages to your list; But, after all, neither you, nor I in my Notes, affirm any doctrine which Rome denies. Those Notes also make frequent reference to a traditional teaching, which (be the faith ever so contained in Scripture), still is necessary as a Regula Fidei, for showing us that it is contained there; vid. Pp. 283-431; and this tradition, I know, you uphold as fully as I do in the Notes in question. In consequence, you allow that there is a two-fold rule, Scripture and Tradition; and this is all that Catholics say. How, then do Anglicans differ from Rome here? I believe the difference is merely one of words…” (John Henry Newman, Certain Difficulties Felt By Anglicans In Catholic Teaching Considered, vol. 2, pp. 11, 12.)

Grace and peace,



Anonymous said...

Hi Dave,

“Moreover, aside from these scriptural utterances, let us also consider the tradition and teaching and faith of the Catholic Church from the beginning, that which the Lord has given, the apostles preached, and the fathers [596A] guarded. This is the foundation on which the Church is established, and the one who strays form it is not a Christian and should no longer be called so…”

Dr. White thinks the author of that quote believes in sola scriptura? Against so much Protestant academic study and all Catholics? How?

If the doctrine of perspicuity were true, one Protestant church should stand out from the rest, shouldn't it? Before I became Catholic, I remember trying to decide without tradition whether I should be a baptist or a pedobaptist. I consulted Duane Spencer and Hendricksen's commentary on Colossians on one side, against all my Baptist roots on the other. I don't think the baptists or pedobaptists are just stupid or sinful. They both can make a good case sola scriptura. That tells me that the Scriptures are not prespicuous. And so does every other doctrine which makes good Protestants disagree and go to their separate churches for it. Both sides always sound good. I cannot believe that the Scripture alone clearly points to one non-Catholic sola scriptura church.


David Waltz said...

Hello Rory,

Good to see you back at Articuli Fidei; you wrote:

>> Dr. White thinks the author of that quote believes in sola scriptura? Against so much Protestant academic study and all Catholics? How?>>

Me: James is the expert on James, but I doubt that he will ever weigh in here, so allow me to speculate. Athanasius is quite clear, as Newman relates, “that the whole Christian faith is contained in Scripture”; but he is just as clear that the Scriptures need to be interpreted by the traditions of the fathers. For instance, Athanasius in his 2nd Festal letter wrote:

“But after him and with him are all inventors of unlawful heresies, who indeed refer to the Scriptures, but do not hold such opinions as the saints have handed down, and receiving them as the traditions of men, err, because they do not rightly know them nor their power. Therefore Paul justly praises the Corinthians, because their opinions were in accordance with his traditions. And the Lord most righteously reproved the Jews, saying, ‘Wherefore do ye also transgress the commandments of God on account of your traditions.’ For they changed the commandments they received from God after their own understanding, preferring to observe the traditions of men.” (NPNF 4.511.)

So, I suspect that James has placed too much emphasis on the fact that Athansius believed in the material sufficiency of Sacred Scripture, such that this emphasis has clouded the other aspect of Athanasius view: the need of the true tradition (Regula Fidei) for correct interpretation.

Grace and peace,