Wednesday, August 27, 2003

Debate on Sola Scriptura

I went to a debate last night on sola scriptura (scripture alone) between seasoned Catholic apologist Gerry Matatics and a local Baptist pastor.

In spite of the fact that Matatics, a former Reformed Presbyterian, was on the wrong side of the debate (arguing against sola scriptura) it was clear he won on points. The pastor was clearly a man who loved God, but he was in over-his-head in terms of debating Matatics.

Matatics began his opening statement by affirming, as the Roman Catholic Church does, the inspiration, infallibility, and inerrancy of scripture. It reminded me of the many things we conservative Reformed share with Roman Catholics. A belief in absolute truth. A trust and love for the sacred scriptures. Affirmation of the historic creeds of the church.

Not to whitewash our differences, which are as vast and profound as in the sixteenth century. We are still, in my opinion, teaching different gospels, as I have written about many times. But I always feel a slightly inexplicable kinship toward Catholics that goes beyond (or is in spite of) the fact that I was once one myself. A kinship that I never feel with liberal Protestants.

(Matatics also affirmed belief in a young earth. At this, my pastor, seated next to me, gave me a needling nudge, knowing my position in favor of an old earth. It is possible, given the audience, that on this point I was a minority of one.)

As I said, Matatics won the debate. He did so by setting up a straw man sola scriptura and then knocking it down.

The thrust of his argument was that the bible itself contains many indications of oral transmission of God’s word. For example, Adam and Eve heard the word, God didn’t write it down for them.

Matatics quoted many passages, including:
I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete. (1 John 12)

And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is at work in you who believe.(1 Th. 2:13)
(Actually I am not sure he quoted 1 Th. 2:13, but if not then he quoted many similar verses.)

Clearly the apostles (and the prophets, and God Himself) taught orally before anything was written down. So, according to Matatics, if you really believe sola scriptura, then far from being a self-consistent doctrine it actually disproves itself, since the refutation of the sufficiency of scripture is itself contained in scripture.

But Matatics is arguing against a caricature of sola scriptura. Of course God, the prophets, and the apostles taught orally. Only a fool would say otherwise. What sola scriptura states is that anything they said that is vital has been recorded (enscripulated). In the passage from 1 John above, whatever John spoke "face-to-face" either (a) is not crucial for us to know, or (b) was recorded elsewhere in scripture, maybe by the pen of a different New Testament (inspired) writer.

Matatics also kept insisting the pastor, who was slightly flustered by this point, provide a single verse in scripture that teaches sola scriptura. He must have asked that question ten times. This is disingenuous. There is no requirement inherent in sola scriptura that all doctrines, including sola scriptura itself, be defensible via a single verse. Sola scriptura allows for reasonable inference and deduction. In that manner, sola scriptura can be defended via sola scriptura, for example in the Westminster Confession.

No, we do not deny that the apostles taught orally. In fact, if the Apostle Paul spoke at the debate last night, our consciences would be bound by what we heard. The problem is, we Protestants believe that such apostolic authority ended two thousand years ago. I was hoping the pastor would demand, in like turn, a single verse that demonstrates apostolic authority to bind a conscience continues to the present day.

Matatics also used Obadiah as an example. Surely, Matatics noted, (paraphrasing here) Obadiah spoke more than the 21 verses recorded in his book. I was hoping the pastor would ask him (a) does your oral tradition tell you what Obadiah said that wasn’t recorded? If not doesn't it suffer from the same alleged criticism? and (b) If Obadiah said things that are vital for us, why didn't God establish a Magisterium in Old Testament times to safeguard Old Testament oral tradition?

All in all it was an entertaining evening. Afterwards I talked with some conservative traditionalist Catholics. That was very fascinating. I have spoken to many Catholics who have no clue about their own faith. And some like Mark Shea who can defend their faith with skill. But never before have I had the chance to speak with "throwback" Catholics (I don’t mean that pejoratively) who think the ecumenical leanings of the current Pope are wrong, that Vatican II was (at the very least) greatly flawed, and that Protestants are still "schismatics and heretics" rather than "separated brethren". It was great fun! There is something about human nature that makes us admire those that have the courage of their convictions, even when you disagree. Give me a conservative Catholic over a wishy-washy "I’m Okay, You’re Okay" Catholic any day.

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