Monday, July 08, 2002

Scripture Alone

The other day, Mark Byron had a great post on the trinity. However, when I read his post a couple of phrases made me nervous:
Yes, I will make some inferences, but I'm going to base the inferences on the text.

you can make a solid case for the Trinity with just the Bible and few implications
(italics added).

Let me discuss why the italicized phrases made me cringe slightly.

Scripture Alone

For the motivation of Mark Byron’s post you must go back to a post by Mark Shea.

The important concept behind the discussion, is Sola Scriptura, or Scripture Alone. Conservative Protestants of many stripes adhere to this doctrine 1. It means that the only source of special revelation 2 is the Bible. Every message should be tested against the Word.

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. (1 John 4:1, NASB)

When Luther was called to recant at Worms, he famously dug in his heels and said he would not unless he “was convinced by sacred scripture.”

Catholics, like (conservative) Protestants, believe the Bible is the authoritive, inerrant word of God. However, Catholics, unlike Protestants, acknowledge an additional source of revelation: the binding authority of sacred tradition or a magisterium.

Too Much Freedom

Catholics are sensitive to the Protestant denial of sacred tradition. A common charge leveled against Protestants is that strict adherence to Sola Scriptura results in a cacophony of opinions because some aspects of the scripture are simply not clear.

Indeed, at first glance this criticism has merit. We have Calvinists and Arminians. Infant Baptism and Adult (Believer’s) Baptism. Baptism by sprinkling, baptism by immersion. Some churches come to the Lord's Supper weekly, some monthly, some at other intervals. Not to mention at least four millennial views with sizable numbers of adherents.

This diversity, some would say, is the logical result of Sola Scriptura. On those issues in which scripture is not clear, people will interpret scripture differently.

Those (i.e., the RCC) who hold this view are, of course, absolutely correct. When scripture is not completely clear, then a concept, no matter how important it may be to its proponents, is downgraded from an essential to a liberty issue, or at least there is a implicit recognition that: I believe this but I might be wrong; I can have Christian fellowship with those of an opposing view.

The problem with this criticism is that it doesn’t criticize an actual fault. It is one group saying to another that “your house is not as organized as my house, so you must be doing something wrong.” The geopolitical analogy is Japanese criticism of American society for not being homogeneous.

We agree on the essentials, the essentials that can be discerned unambiguously from scripture. The essentials include things like the divinity of Christ, the Atonement, the Resurrection, and the Trinity. Disagree with an essential, and you have slid into apostasy.

The rest, we say, will be sorted out later.

At the Council of Trent (where the Reformed doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone, Sola Fide, was condemned) the Roman Catholic Church also confirmed the authority of the Church to interpret scripture. Protestants, of course, deny that either sacred tradition or church councils (or any church official) has any authority to bind the conscience. We would say that the uniformity “enjoyed” by the Roman Catholic Church is unlawfully imposed and while it achieves uniformity there is no guarantee that it is not uniformly wrong.

To be sure, even non-essential doctrine should be based on the concept of Sola Scriptura. If you are a Calvinist, you should be so only because you believe reformed doctrine is supported by scripture. If you are Arminian, you should be so because you believe that Arminianism represents the Biblical view. I am a Calvinist in a church that does not proclaim itself to be reformed. No problem. We agree to disagree, except on the essentials: on those we must agree.

Protestant Schism

At one time, all Protestant churches were united by their affirmation of Sola Scriptura and Sola Fide and in a view of Christian essentials as codified (not revealed) in various creeds. Sadly, this is no longer the case. But the real disunity in Protestants churches (the conservative/liberal disunity) comes not as an inevitable “flaw” in stubbornly adhering to Sola Scriptura but from abandoning it, often in the worst possible way: by denying the inerrancy of the Bible. If the Bible is in error then the doctrine of Sola Scriptura is, of course, utterly fatuous.

Silly Protestants

The other criticism of Sola Scriptura is that Protestants don’t “really” adhere to Sola Scriptura (any more than we “really” believe Sola Fide.) This argument is that we “talk-the-talk” but don’t “walk-the-walk.”

So one criticism is that we can’t (actually, it is that we shouldn’t) adhere to “Scripture Alone”, the other argument is that we don’t follow it anyway. We can’t, and even if we can, we don’t.

When I saw Mark Byron’s post, and those caveats he used, which I quoted above, I wondered if someone would walk through the door he left open. Someone did.

In this post, where once again Mark Shea tells us that we don’t believe what we say we believe, a Mr. Tom Ryan comments:

I checked out Mark's [Mark Byron’s] comments and they just don't hold any weight. He says he only needs 'a little inference'. Well, ANY inference goes outside "Scripture Alone". Any good New Ager could poke a million holes into his arguments. For example, Jesus and the Father being 'One'. All things are One. There is only One. What Jesus was saying was that we're all one together and he was just pointing out the way. Remember he also said "Our Father" so obviously using inference, we see that Jesus was saying that we're all the same essence as the Father.

Ugh. Been there, done that. I'd remind Mark that Arius used Scripture to prove that Jesus WASN'T equal to the Father.

Now Mr. Ryan’s argument is a bit too Reductio ad Absurdium; also I am not sure whether he understands that professing Sola Scriptura does not mean that every verse must be taken literally. But no matter-- I accept his claim.

The problem with Mark Byron’s post is that his argument was stronger than he himself claimed. The Trinity is clearly taught in scripture, and no “inferences” are required. The only thing man did was give it a name.

If the Trinity is not clear (in scripture) then we must either allow that Mark Shea is right (we let sacred tradition in the backdoor even if we don’t admit it) or the Trinity should not be one of our Christian essentials.

Tradition is fine, it’s just not sacred

Mark Shea is not correct when he writes “most Protestants believe in Sacred Tradition, but don't know they do” and he is not correct in his implication that tradition is required to fully support the Trinity. But he is correct in some isolated cases. Some churches mistakenly elevate a non-essential doctrine into an essential one by teaching that its view is the one “true” understanding and any opposing view represents apostasy. There are churches, for example, that teach that you cannot be saved unless you affirm a particular end-times view.

Tradition, meaning which of those “non-essential” doctrines a church will teach or profess (but not affirm as “essential”) is perfectly legitimate. In my own church, we practice believer’s baptism by immersion. The church’s position is that there is a strong case for believer’s baptism in scripture and also for baptism by immersion. While I tend to agree with that position, my support for it is much weaker than the church’s. Nevertheless, I think it is perfectly legitimate for this church to require (barring special circumstances) new members to be baptized by immersion.

If my church taught that those rascally Presbyterians who practice infant baptism are all hell-bound, I would not have joined. Tradition is fine, but it is not sacred, and it is not binding.

The Trinity

Tomorrow I will discuss the Trinity. I will borrow much from Mark Byron’s post, and add some more scriptural support. The purpose will be to demonstrate that the concept of the Trinity is clearly biblical, and requires no inference of any kind. One does not have to appeal to sacred tradition for support of the Trinity. Like all Christian essentials, it is manifest within the province of Sola Scriptura.

1 In a sense you could say that Sola Scriptura is not doctrine but an axiom which then is the basis for doctrine, such as the doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone (Sola Fide). Here we do not make that distinction.
2There is also general revelation, in which aspects of God are revealed through nature. See Rom. 1:18-21.

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