Why Be Catholic
An Exercise for Evangelicals
by James Akin
The following is a copy of my lecture notes for a talk I recently (12/11/97) gave to a class at Talbot Theological Seminary. Talbot is an Evangelical seminary located on the campus of Biola University in the Los Angeles area. Since I was talking to a group of Protestant seminarians, the talk was somewhat more technical than I usually give. However, the information is still useful.
- I’ve been asked to give a brief case for why one should be a Catholic.
- If I had more time, of course, I could lay out an even better, fuller case, but as it is there are time restrictions.
- Because of these limitations, I will have to only sketch an outline of the case for Catholicism.
- Therefore, in this outline I will not be able to anticipate many of the objections I would like to cover, and will have to leave them to the question period.
- One topic I want to make sure we get to in the question period is the subject of justification. Many Protestants and Catholics have the misimpression that we have fundamentally different and incompatible understandings of justification. This is not true, and I very much want to talk about why it is not true.
- However, since justification is not a point of fundamental incompatibility between the two groups, I have no need to argue the subject as part of my case for why you should be Catholic, and thus we should talk about it in the question period, instead.
- To help understand the case for Catholicism, I am also providing this outline of my talk, and in it I will try to provide recommendations for further reading.
- Since I became a Christian at the age of twenty, I have studied Scripture passionately.
- My greatest desire was to enter the Protestant ministry, either as a pastor or as a seminary professor.
- I was a five-point Calvinist, and was under care of session in a conservative, evangelical Presbyterian church (PCA).
- However, as time went on, I began noticing things in Scripture that did not fit Protestant theology.
- Eventually, the number of these things reached critical mass, and I was forced to undertake a thorough review of the categories of theology with an open mind, to see whether the Protestant case could really stand up.
- In the end, I concluded that it could not. I was forced to conclude that, despite the many doctrinally sound elements it contains, Protestantism, in any of its forms, was simply not the faith of the Bible, and that Catholicism was. So I was compelled in conscience to enter the Catholic Church.
- Many answers can be given to this question, just as many can be given to the question “Why be a Christian in general?”
- Some of the answers provided for these two questions will focus on what benefits Christianity and Catholicism in particular bring to the individual, to the family, and to society.
- Answers of this kind are fine. Scripture offers such answers itself when it speaks of the need to adopt the true faith (e.g., “What does it profit a man . . . ?”, “Labor for bread that endures . . . “, “Choose life . . . “).
- However, there is one underlying answer, independent of the benefits Christianity and Catholicism bring, to the questions of why one should be a Christian and a Catholic. That answer is the same in both cases: “Because it is true.”
- In what follows, I will outline what led me to the realization that not only is Christianity in general true, but that Catholicism in particular is true.
- The particular issue that caused the number of Scriptural problems I was seeing with Protestant theology to reach critical mass was a Scriptural discovery regarding the office of the pope.
- As an Evangelical, I believed that in Matthew 16:18, Jesus did not say that Peter was the rock on which he would build his Church.
- I believed that Jesus was contrasting Peter with the rock, which I believed to be the confession that Jesus is the Christ.
- The way I buttressed this belief was by asserting the difference between the word used in the Greek translation for “Peter” (petros) and the word used for “rock” (petra) showed that the two were being contrasted.
- Like many evangelicals, I asserted that the term petros meant “small stone” and that the petra meant “large rock.” Jesus was therefore diminishing Peter and his importance with the large, important piece of revelation that Jesus is the Messiah.
- However, that argument simply does not work:
- In first century Greek, petros and petra did not mean “small stone” and “large rock.” As D. A. Carson points out in his commentary on Matthew in the Expositor’s Bible Commentary, the terms did have those meanings in some early Greek poetry, but by the first century, this distinction was gone and the two were synonyms (EBC 8:368).
- Furthermore, as Carson points out, “the Aramaic kepa, which underlies the Greek, means ‘(massive) rock’” (EBC 8:367), not “small stone.”
- The usage of the two different terms if fully accounted for by stylistic variation. Too much repetition grates on the ears, which is the whole reason we have pronouns—to avoid excess repetition. In this case, varying the term petros as petra is a normal stylistic variation to avoid repetition in the same sentence.
- We would acknowledge even greater examples of stylistic variation in everyday speech in English. If I were a hospital administrator attending a fund-raiser where I planned to announce that one of my chief doctors, a man named Dr. Robert Stone, would be the chief physician of a new wing of the hospital, I might publicly say, “I tell you truly, Bob, that you are a Stone, and on the rock I will build a whole new wing of the hospital.” Nobody at the function would think I was referring to anyone except Dr. Stone as the rock on which the new wing is built. It is perfectly normal stylistic variation, and the etymological difference between the English terms “stone” and “rock” is ever greater than the difference between the Greek terms “petros” and “petra.”
- Even supposing, contrary to the linguistic evidence, that the two terms should be read as “small stone” and “large rock,” this does not mean Jesus is diminishing Peter in the statement. The anti-Petrine argument assumes that, if there is a difference in the two terms, there must be antithetic parallelism between the statement about Peter and the statement about the rock. I.e., that Jesus is diminishing Peter by contrasting him with the rock: “I tell you Peter, you are a very small stone, but on the great rock of my identity, I will build my Church.” However, the assumption that the parallelism is antithetic is merely an assumption with no proof. It can just as easily be synthetic, so that the statement about the rock expands on the statement about Peter: “I tell you Peter, you may look like a small stone now, but on the great rock you truly are, I will build my Church.”
- I recognized that the standard Evangelical argument against Peter being the rock does not work. However, one day I was reading Matthew 16, when suddenly the exegetical structure of Jesus’ speech to Peter became crystal clear to me and provided positive proof that, as the common sense reading would have it, Peter is undoubtedly the rock.
- In Matthew 16:17-19, Jesus makes three statements. All three begin with an assertion concerning Peter. This assertion is this followed by a two-part elaboration consisting of a contrast (human/divine revelation, Christ’s/Satan’s activity, heavenly ratification of earthly binding/loosing). This elaboration develops the meaning of the principal assertion.
The exegetical structure of Matthew 16:17-19
|Statement 1||17 “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona!||For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you,||but my Father who is in heaven.|
|Statement 2||18 And I tell you, youare Peter,||and on this rock I will build my church,||and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.|
|Statement 3||19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven,||and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven,||and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”|
- The exegetical structure of the passage demands that Peter be the rock:
- Statements 1 and 3 have Peter as their principal subject, therefore statement 2 does as well.
- Statements 1 and 3 are blessings on Peter, therefore statement 2 is as well.
- The elaborations in statements 1 and 3 develop the meaning of the assertions in those statement, therefore the elaborations in statement 2 develop the meaning of statement 2.
- Faced with these facts, as well as others I don’t have time to go into here, I was forced to conclude that Peter is, indeed the rock that Jesus was speaking of.
- Many Evangelical exegetes admit the same thing. However, they immediately try to block any implications being drawn from this fact. They try to shut down the chain of inference and isolate the datum so that it cannot give rise to any ecclesiological inferences. Typically, they admit that Peter is the rock but then assure their readers—without proof—that the Catholic claims concerning Peter do not follow. These claims are left unexamined.
- In justice, one cannot simply shut down the process of inference and treat the fact that Peter is the rock as an isolated theological datum, hanging off in space, with no connections to anything else.
- One must think through the implications of this fact, just as one must think through the implications of every other fact Scripture presents us with.
- When one is allowed to do this, it becomes clear that Peter is, indeed, the chief apostle—de jure and not just de facto. I recognized this myself when I was an Evangelical. I said to myself, “It’s a good thing that Peter is not the rock, because if he were then he would be the chief apostle, and if he were the chief apostle then he would be in charge once Jesus ascended to heaven.”
- When I discovered that Peter was the rock, I was thus forced to conclude that he was the earthly leader of the Church in Jesus’ absence, and I realized that this is a pretty basic definition of the office of the pope.
- Peter’s unique role as head apostle is also not restricted to Matthew 16.
- In Luke 22, Jesus answers the question of who is the greatest apostle with another three part speech. He first explains the principle of Christian leadership (leadership is service), he then assures all the apostles that they will have prominent places in his kingdom (“you will sit on twelve thrones”), and he finally gives Peter special pastoral charge of the other apostles (“strengthen the faith of your brethren”). This entire speech is his answer to who is the greatest apostle, and he makes it clear: He has given Peter a special pastoral role (and specially prayed for Peter to fulfill this role) over the other apostles.
- Similarly, in John 21, Jesus again indicates Peter’s special pastoral role over the other apostles. We are told who is present at the scene, and John tells us it is the apostles, the core disciples. Then Jesus leads Peter in a three-fold confession (balancing his previous three-fold denial). He prefaces it by asking Peter “Do you love me more than these?” Who are “these”? The other apostles who are present. Therefore, it is with them in view that Jesus singles Peter out and reaffirms his pastoral role, telling him “Feed my sheep/lambs.” Because of the preface pointing to Peter’s special role among the apostles (“these”), they are included in Peter’s pastoral charge (“my sheep”).
- Another Catholic doctrine which I recognized would be true if Peter were the rock is the doctrine of papal infallibility.
- God has always provided a means of institutional doctrinal certainty to his people.
- In the earliest days of the Old Testament, the high priest ministered with the urim and thummim to inquire of the Lord. Since God does not lie (though he did not always answer the high priest), when he answered he was right. There was, therefore, an ex officio infallibility charism associated with the office of the high priest.
- This infallibility charism could also be exercised without the urim and thummim in some cases. In John 11, John tells us that the high priest of his day, without even realizing it, prophecied by the Holy Spirit “because he was high priest that year.” This was purely because of his office, as John indicates. It was certainly not due to his state of moral rectitude with God, for this is the Saducee high priest who has the Messiah put to death. In fact, he is plotting Messiah’s death when he makes the prophecy. This is, therefore, a purely ex officio (“of the office”) infallibility charism, not due to the moral qualities of the person holding the office or anything else.
- Given these facts, I said to myself, “It is a good thing the Catholics are not right about Peter being the rock, because otherwise they would have a good case for papal infallibility.”
- Also, incidentally, despite Peter’s own moral lapses, including his three-fold denial of the faith (“Are not you also one of his disciples?”/”I am not”; John 18:25), this obviously did not stop him from later exercising an infallibility charism in some circumstances. Nor does Paul’s rebuke of Peter’s behavior stop him from doing so.
- When people confuse the issue of limited papal infallibility with impeccability or with total infallibility, I often draw on these facts by pointing out: “I know of a pope who denied the Christian faith, was publicly rebuked by his greatest cardinal, and then later went on to write two completely infallible encyclicals. His name was Simon Peter and you can find the two encyclicals in the back of your New Testament.”
- The fact that Peter is the rock on which the Church is built has implications for our ecclesiology.
- Some, in an attempt to block inferences from being drawn from Peter’s status as the rock, have tried to say that his role consists merely in unlocking the kingdom to Jews and then Gentiles. Once the events of Acts 2 and 10 are over, he then has no further role.
- This theory not work, for one reason, because the power of “loosing” is paired with the power of binding. If loosing were interpreted to mean the right to preach the gospel and admit new ethnic groups to the Church, then Peter would also have the right to refuse to preach the gospel and refuse to let certain ethnic groups into the Church. This is manifestly contrary to Christ’s design, as alluded to in the gospels and laid manifest in Paul’s epistles, which was to create a multi-ethnic Messianic community with non excluded. Therefore, the theory must be false.
- A second reason that it is false is that it totally fails to take into account the meaning of binding and loosing language in the Jewish context. The terms “bind” and “loose” are not new metaphors whose meaning we are left to guess at. They had established usages in rabbinic language, and we know exactly what they meant. In essence, this language could be used to convey:
- The ability to make, modify, and abolish authoritative rules of conduct for the community. These rules were (and are!) known in the Jewish community as halakah. For example, the rule that one must not eat a meal with both milk and meat products is a halakahbased on the Scriptural injunction not to cook a young goat in its mother’s milk.Many Jewish halakahwere unreasonable, and Jesus censured the Jewish authorities for making such rules. He excoriated them as “tying up heavy loads and laying them upon men’s backs,” but being unwilling to even lift a finger to lighten them.Yet Jesus did not challenge the authority of the authorities to make halakah for the Jewish community. Rather, in Matthew 23, he stressed that they “sit on Moses’ seat” and so the average person was obliged to “do whatever they tell you” (but to do not as they do, since they behave hypocritically).
Here in Matthew 16, Jesus gives Peter the power to make halakah for the Christian community, and he later (Matt. 18:18), extends the same authority to the other apostles.
Since every community needs rules of conduct and the ability to establish, modify, and repeal them, the Christian Church has always recognized the authority of its leaders to establish such rules (e.g., this is a day of fast, this is a day of abstinence, this is a day of feast, etc.).
- The other established meaning for binding and loosing language is the forgiveness or retention of sins. Because this is not central to our present purpose, we will not go into this meaning here.
- For further reading on these two usages, see The Jewish New Testament Commentary on Matthew 16:18, 18:18, A Rabbinic Commentary on the New Testament by Samuel Lachs (Hoboken, NJ and New York, NY: KTAV/ADL, 1987), 256f, 270f. Since it’s probably otherwise hard to get ahold of, here is a brief excerpt from the Jewish Encyclopedia:
“BINDING AND LOOSING (Hebrew, asar ve-hittir) . . . Rabinnical term for ‘forbidding and permitting.’ . . .
“The power of binding and loosing as always claimed by the Pharisees. Under Queen Alexandra the Pharisees, says Josephus (Wars of the Jews 1:5:2), ‘became the administrators of all public affairs so as to be empowered to banish and readmit whom they pleased, as well as to loose and to bind.’ . . . The various schools had the power ‘to bind and to loose’; that is, to forbid and to permit (Talmud: Chagigah 3b); and they could also bind any day by declaring it a fast-day ( . . . Talmud: Ta’anit 12a . . . ). This power and authority, vested in the rabbinical body of each age of the Sanhedrin, received its ratification and final sanction from the celestial court of justice (Sifra, Emor, 9; Talmud: Makkot 23b).
“In this sense Jesus, when appointing his disciples to be his successors, used the familiar formula (Matt. 16:19, 18:18). By these words he virtually invested them with the same authority as that which he found belonging to the scribes and Pharisees who ‘bind heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but will not move them with one of their fingers’; that is ‘loose them,’ as they have the power to do (Matt. 23:2-4). In the same sense the second epistle of Clement to James II (‘Clementine Homilies,’ Introduction [A.D. 221]), Peter is represented as having appointed Clement as his successor, saying: ‘I communicate to him the power of binding and loosing so that, with respect to everything which he shall ordain in the earth, it shall be decreed in the heavens; for he shall bind what ought to be bound and loose what ought to be loosed as knowing the rule of the Church.’” (Jewish Encyclopedia 3:215).
- These facts about Peter and the meaning of binding and loosing allow us to understand Jesus’ ecclesiology.
- Contrary to the Evangelical claim that the only universal Church Christ intended there to be is an invisible one made up of all believers, Scripture indicates that he fully intended his Church to be a visible, corporal institution on earth.
- Christ uses the term ecclesia only twice in the gospels—in Matthew 16:18 and 18:18. It is in light of these two passages that we must understand Christ’s ecclesiology, and these two do not allow the idea of an invisible, non-authoritative Church.
- We may make the following points regarding the two passages and their contexts:
- Jesus gives Peter the “keys” to his kingdom, following the custom of the Old Testament chamberlain, who held the keys of the house of David for his master (Is. 22). Peter is thus the new chamberlain over the house of the new David.
- By instituting Peter as his chamberlain, Jesus makes Peter it’s earthly leader in his absence. But an “invisible” (non-institutional, non-authoritative) set of believers needs no leader.
- Jesus gives Peter the authority to bind and loose, which have reference to the establishment, modification, and repeal of authoritative rules of conduct for the community. But an invisible set of believers needs no such disciplinary rules. Only visible institutions do.
- Jesus promises that the gates of sheol will never prevail against his Church. Minimally, this means it will never pass away. But the invisible set of believers needs no promise that it will not pass away since many believers are already in heaven.
- In Matthew 18, when Jesus refers to the Church, he indicated that the Church has the power of excommunication (“If he will not listen even to the Church, treat him as you would a Gentile and a tax collector”—i.e., as an outsider, hence excommunication). But an invisible body has no need or power of excommunication. Only visible, institutional bodies need the ability to shear off diseased members who are trying to remain within it.
- These few points (plus others we do not have time for), indicate that Jesus understood his Church to be a visible, institutional Church, not merely the invisible set of all believers.
- Because he speaks of it in the singular “my Church,” we know that his Church is a single visible institution. It is not a collection of visible institutions on the Protestant model. Jesus said “my church,” not “my churches.”
- This is also, in fact, how the early Christians understood the idea of Christ’s Church. As early Church historian J. N. D. Kelly points out, they did not have the concept of an “invisible” church (see his book Early Christian Doctrines), which was a concept created at the time of the Protestant Reformation, purely to justify breaking away from the visible Christian Church.
- Because, in the passage where Jesus was promising his Church would never pass out of existence, he was conceiving of his Church as a single, visible institution, we have the promise of Christ that the single, visible institution he founded as his Church will not pass away, and therefore has survived and remained on earth until this day, united and held together by the disciplinary authority he gave it in governing its members.
- In order to be a member of Christ’s Church, therefore, one must find a Christian Church which has existed since the first century as a single, visible institution. There is only one such entity: The Catholic Church.
- Unlike every other church, which has come into existence at a later point, drawing its members from another group, only the Catholic Church has existed as a single, visible institution since the first century. It is the original Christian Church. It is the Church that was personally founded by Jesus Christ. It will continue to the end of the world. The gates of sheol cannot overcome it. It does speak with the authority he gave it. And one must join the Catholic Church in order to be truly united, in body and not only in spirit, with Christ’s Church.
- Having covered the papacy and ecclesiology and briefly examined why the Protestant account of these issues does not stand up, I now wish to look at what I consider the core difficulty with Protestantism, from which all other doctrinal problems flow.
- This is the issue of sola Scriptura, which, as you know, has been termed the formal principle of the Reformation.
- Luther originally proposed the doctrine of sola Scriptura as a way of insulating himself against easy rebuttals.
- He had produced his own, distinctive explanation of the doctrine of justification and, in classic Luther form, had made some excessively dramatic statements concerning it (some of which he and his later disciples retracted during the Reformation period).
- Luther also wished to deny a great number of other doctrines.
- However, since the early Church Fathers and the teachings of the magisterium were both clearly contrary to Luther’s new positions, Luther had to deprive the Fathers and the Church of having binding doctrinal force that would be capable of correcting his understanding of the Scriptures.
- He therefore partitioned the Father and the magisterium and asserted that one must look to Scripture only as being binding in the formulation of one’s doctrine.
- The other Protestant leaders, who were advocating positions as radical or even more radical than Luther, recognized that they must do the same thing to protect their interpretations of Scripture. And so the doctrine of sola Scriptura gained a wide currency in Protestant circles.
- It is ironic that the “formal principle” of the Protestant Reformation was actually devised as a protection for the “material principle” of the Protestant Reformation (i.e., sola fide). Normally, matter fills form, not form adjust to matter. It could be said that this was a case of the tail wagging the dog.
- There has been much disagreement about the meaning of the formula sola Scriptura in Protestant circles, just as there has been much disagreement about the meaning of the formula sola fide.
- However, in contemporary Evangelical circles, especially those that do not place much emphasis on the private revelations of the charismatic movement, there is broad agreement on how sola Scriptura is supposed to function in practice.
- According to this understanding, which I shared when I was an Evangelical, any theological proposition which cannot be proved from Scripture alone is not to be regarded as something people are obligated to believe, but, at most, as a permitted speculation.
- The method of proof by Scripture alone that is to be used is that the proposition must be derived from Scripture (a) by finding an explicit statement of the proposition or (b) by inferring it from a verse or set of verses, even though it is not explicitly stated.
- In all cases, the verses are to be interpreted according to the grammatico-historical method, and any other method of interpretation is not to be considered as producing binding, doctrinal results.
- This is the common understanding of sola Scriptura in the Evangelical community, so it is the one I wish to talk about today.
- I can only begin by saying, in all honesty, that the doctrine is flatly unbiblical.
- To begin with, it is not a principle that was ever employed at any time during the writing of the Bible.
- Every individual who lived in the Biblical world relied on extra-Scriptural modes of communication for God’s word. These included personal dreams, visions, prophets, urim and thummim, apostles. These methods are all principally oral (most prophets never wrote; neither did most apostles, but they all conveyed God’s word, which they had learned in an unwritten manner).
- As Hebrews 1 states, “In many ways, God spoke to our fathers of old.” Note that it says God spoke to the fathers in many ways, not that he wrote to the fathers in many ways. It caps it off by saying “And now he has spoken to us by his Son,” not that he has written to us by his Son.
- This emphasis on speaking rather than writing is reflective of the fact that the biblical world was primarily an aural rather than a documentary culture. Some documents were kept, but these were hard to duplicate and could only be read by a literate elite, in any event. The great majority of people could not read, which is why the public reading of Scripture was important.
- Because Scripture envisions the average individual encountering Scripture in oral form, it does not envision him sitting down and reading Scripture and doing a Bible study, as sola Scriptura requires if one is to take into account the whole teaching of Scripture rather than just a few verses one has heard someone read.
- Biblical society was also what has been termed a “high context” culture, where most of the information is assumed to be known by the audience of a document, and therefore is not spelled out in a document. Northern European and American society, by contrast, is “low context,” which means much less is taken for granted and our documents are much more concerned with spelling out individual points in detail (this document is a good example).
- Because the Scriptures are a set of documents produced in a high context culture, they assume much that is not stated in the text. By looking at the text itself, without allowing other factors to inform our reading of it, sola Scriptura invariably leads to mistaken interpretations since it tries to treat Scripture as an exhaustive reflection of the biblical mindset, when it is not.
- For example, Scripture never directly addresses the question of who should be baptized (believers or believers and their children) or how people should be baptized (dunking, pouring, sprinking, or via a number of different pemissible methods).Why doesn’t it address these questions? Because it was written for people who either (a) had already been baptized and knew the answers from the practice of the Church or (b) were candidates for conversion who would learn the answers from the practice of the Church. The answers to these two questions about baptism which vex the Protestant world are troublesome because Scripture never answers them. It expect one to look to the practice of the Churchto find out the answers.Advocates of sola Scriptura, however, are forced to try to compel Scripture to do something, as a high context document, that it was never intended to do.
- If one had approached a figure of biblical times, either Old Testament or new, and presented him with the idea that he should form his beliefs based only on what was written, he would have scratched his head and thought you were crazy.
- Odds were, he would be illiterate and have only limited access to Scripture.
- Furthermore, he was a member of a high context or oral tradition based society (for the context has to be transmitted orally if it is not transmitted literarily), and he would conclude that you know nothing about the way his society or its documents work.
- Finally, he would point to examples of God’s word being transmitted in his day, outside of Scripture.
- For example, if one approached a member of the church of Thessalonica in Paul’s day and suggested that the church members refuse to adhere to things he told them orally and look only at what was written, they would have been incredulous.
- That church in particular, because of the problems it had with false letters the apostle had supposedly sent, Paul particularly reminded to pay attention to what he had told them orally.
- A pointed case is 2 Thess. 3:8, where he reminds them that he already orally told them what restrains the man of sin. But notice, he doesn’t tell us! Paul never states what is restraining the man of sin, and Protestant exegetes have been all over the map trying to figure it out, because Scripture simply does not say. (Another example of high context/oral tradition literary practice.)
- Because sola Scriptura was never practiced during Scriptural times, for it to be required of us now would be to require a major epistemological paradigm shift—one totally unprecedented in the history of God’s dealings with man.
- If such a radical shift in theological method were to occur upon the deaths of the apostles, then surely they would have warned us about it. There should be passages (and there must be passages, after all, since the apostles orally transmitting this idea won’t do, under the theory of sola Scriptura), in which the apostles say:”Listen, guys, after we’re dead, gather up all our writings and listen to them alone; forget everything we said outside of what is in our writings, every teaching and commandment we gave you; none of it is relevant. Oh yeah, and make sure you get everybody a copy of our writings, because everyone is supposed to read them and be ultimately responsible for firguring them out, with others no more than giving advice about what they mean.”Needless to say, there are no such passages. Instead, we find the apostles making arrangements for their teachings to be carried on in oral form (see below).
- Protestants have, of course, tried a number of passages and sets of passages to prove sola Scriptura. However, all of these attempts do not work (we can talk about some of them in the question period). Usually, the do not work, if for no other reason, because if they proved anything, they’d prove too much. They address situations that were happening in the biblical age, and so if they proved sola Scriptura for anyone, they would prove it for the period when Scripture was still being written—the period when we most definitively know that sola Scriptura was not God’s will.
- In order for any passage or set of passages to be used to prove sola Scriptura, they must imply that there is going to be a major theological paradigm shift after the deaths of the apostles, whereby their hearers are to forget what they were told orally, and whereby they are henceforth (but not before the shift) to cling to Scripture alone. Needless to say, there aren’t any such passages and sets of passages.
- The fact that sola Scriptura cannot be proven from Scripture alone is a major problem for the theory. If every theological point must be provable from Scripture alone, then sola Scriptura must be provable from Scripture alone.
- If it cannot be so proven then the theory is self-refuting. It chops its own base out from under itself. It is like other self-refuting propositions like, “No generalizations are true,” and so is automatically false.
- Since sola Scriptura cannot be proven from Scripture alone, we know that it is a self-refuting proposition and thus is guaranteed to be false. Scripture expects you to look to things other than itself when forming your doctrine.
- Namely, it itends you to look to the apostolic mindset—the grid through which the apostles read the Scriptures. Historically, Christians have referred to this grid as “apostolic Tradition” or “sacred Tradition.”
- When we examine what Scripture has to say, we find out that “tradition” is simply not a dirty word in the Bible, no matter what Fundamentalist preachers on AM radio would have you believe.
- To be certain, Scripture rejects merely human traditions as untrustworthy and dangerous (Matt. 15:1-9, Col. 2:8).
- However, these are a minority of cases. In most passages where tradition is discussed, it is apostolic tradition that is under discussion, and tradition is presented in a positive light:
- In 1 Cor. 11:2, Paul commends the Corinthians, for they have kept the traditions, just as he delivered them to them. So keeping apostolic tradition is commendable.
- In 2 Thess 2:15, Paul commands the Thessalonians to keep all the apostolic traditions they have received, whether by word of mouth or by in writing. So keeping apostolic tradition is not only commended, it is commanded, and this is a standing command of the New Testament, one never revoked anywhere.
- In 2 Thess 3:6, Paul commands the Thessalonians to keep away from anyone who refuses to live in accord with the tradition he gave them. The tradition in this case is working for a living rather than living in idleness. However, the same goes for any apostolic tradition Paul gave them. Disobedience to apostolic tradition is a shunnable offense.
- And finally, in 2 Tim. 2:2, Paul tells Timothy to take what he has heard from Paul in front of many witnesses—so this is Paul’s oral teaching, which means it is apostolic tradition—and pass it on to trustworthy men who will be able to teach others also. Since Paul is about to be killed and tells us in this last letter of his that he has finished his race and is about to be poured out like a drink offering, he expects Timothy to do this after he is gone. Thus what Paul is doing is explaining the process of apostolic succession, and he names its first four generations: his own, Timothy’s, the generation of leaders Timothy teaches, and the generation they teach. Needless to say, this stretches beyond the apostolic age, and so Paul is explaining apostolic succession to secure the transmission of oral apostolic teachings in the post-apostolic age. He doesn’t tell Timothy “Gather what I wrote to many individuals,“, but to take what Timothy heard him speak before many witnesses.
- Naturally, we find the early Church Fathers with precisely the same understanding.
- There was no immediate rush to canonize all and only those books which were genuine Scripture. There was not that kind of hurry since the transmission of the apostolic faith was guaranteed by Christ’s promise of the Holy Spirit, who would ensure it was transmitted through the apostolic succession.
- It was only when people started making heretical gopsels and epistles which did not agree with the apostolic faith that the Church took steps toward canonizing Scripture.
- What tests did they use to determine what belongs in Scripture? They acknowledged that Scripture should contain all and only inspired books. And they acknowledged that those books which were inspired were apostolic—either written or approved by the apostles. But how did they test for which books were written or approved by the apostles? They had two tests, both based on tradition:
- If a book disagreed with the faith as passed down through apostolic tradition, it was rejected. Tradition thus was used as a material test for canonicity.
- If a book did not have a history of being regarded as apostolic, it was rejected. Tradition thus was thus used as a formal test for canonicity.
- Without this double-test by tradition you have no knowledge of the canon of Scripture. Your entire understanding of what books are inspired is based, on a human level, on apostolic tradition, as preserved by the Holy Spirit.
- But if you concede that the Holy Spirit guided the Church into making an inerrant decision about what books belong in the Bible, you must concede that the Holy Spirit renders the Church inerrant even hundreds of years after the death of the last apostle, because that is when the canonization of Scripture occurred. And if the Holy Spirit gave the Church limited infallibility then, you cannot deny that he can do so today.
- This also gives us the key to determining which traditions are apostolic and which are merely human. If the God has empowered the Church to use the body of tradition to inerrantly arrive at decisions such as the contents of the canon of Scripture, then he can do, and, obviously in that case, did do the same thing for the Church with regard to the “canon of tradition.”
- The word of God has been passed down to us both in written and oral form, but it is surrounded by fallible writings and speeches of men. It is the Church, the bride of Christ, listening to the voice of her husband, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, who discerns what is authentically apostolic and what is counterfeit.The Church established the canon of Scripture by sorting the apostolic Scriptures from the non-apostolic ones, and so today the Church establishes the canon of tradition by sorting the apostolic Traditions from the non-apostolic ones.The Church herself is not a source of revelation, but it is the means the Holy Spirit uses on earth to witness to what he has revealed, and so give us an objective, verifiable test rather than a Mormonistic “burning in the bosom” about what is true or not.
- Finally, if you are honest, you as a Protestant will admit that the reason that you accept the canon you do is because of tradition. Early in your Christian life, someone handed you a copy of the Bible, which had a particular set of books in it, books that you now accept. By handing over (Latin, tradere) this copy of Scripture to you, someone literally “traditioned” the Scriptures to you. Almost certainly, you have never given serious consideration to other canons of Scripture. And, unless you are a very unusual individual, you have probably never read a Catholic source explaining, in-depth the reasons for the books that belong to the Catholic canon. Thus, unless you have done this, you must admit that your own appropriate of the canon of Scripture is based on tradition—what has been handed on to you—and not on an in-depth, personal investigation of alternatives.
- To close our look at Scripture and its role, I want to point out a few of the ways in which sola Scriptura does not work on a practical level.
- If sola Scriptura were God’s plan for how people should form their theology, then it would be something the average Christian could feasily implement. Otherwise sola Scriptura would simply be something for the Christian elite, the Christian illuminati, and it should not be used by the common masses, who would have no hope of putting it into practice. They should not try to implement sola Scriptura, for they would certainly go wrong, but instead should listen only to the sola Scriptura elite for their information about what the “Bible only” says.
- Unfortunately, sola Scriptura presupposes or assumes a number of things. If it is to be used by the average Christian in world then some basic requirements have to be met:
- The existence of the printing press: Without this, there is no way one can make enough Bibles for people to do the kind of in-depth study needed to form theology.
- The universal distribution of Bibles: Merely having one’s hands on a Bible for a short time does not give time for adequate study, reflection, and testing of ideas. One needs a personal copy of the Bible. In practice, this means that there must be a lot of free cash in circulation, for no printer is going to take 10,000 chickens for an order of 1,000 Bibles.
- Universal literacy: Merely hearing Scripture read is not enough to do the detailed reading and re-reading and word studies one needs to be a competent exegete. One must be able to read for oneself, because it people do not have access to someone to spend their time reading the Bible to outloud and looking up passages for them whenever they want a Bible study.
- Easy universal possession/access to scholarly support materials: Without commentaries, language tools, etc., any attempt to do serious theology is going to go hopelessly off course. So if the average Christian in world history is going to do serious theology, he must either own or have easy access to good scholarly support materials.
- Universal possession of adequate leisure time for study: It does no good to have all the tools for Bible study if one must spend all one’s time working in the fields trying to eek out a starvation diet for oneself and one’s family. One must have sufficient leisure time to do serious, in-depth Bible study.
- Universal nutrition: Though it isn’t pleasant to think about, people’s brains just don’t work right if they aren’t nourished properly. Children who are malnourished grow up to have all kinds of cognitive problems. If you want people to think right, you have to feed them right. And so if you want the average Christian to be able to figure out whether we should still have tongues today or whether we should expect a pre-tribulational rapture (matters Scripture certainly is not indifferent on), then you have to get the average Christian adequate nutrition.
- Universal education in critical thinking skills: Not only do you have to feed people, you also have to train them to recognize good arguments from bad, to spot logical fallacies, to weigh evidence, and to test propositions from multiple points of view. All of this means that, in order to responsibly do theology, the average Christian would have to have a solid training in critical thinking skills before he could be turned loose on Scripture.
- Needless to say, the average Christian in the world today does not meet all seven of these presuppositions that sola Scriptura makes. Much less does the average Christian of world history do so.
- In fact, assumption #1 did not become true until very recently. The printing press was only invented in the 1450s, shortly before the Protestant Reformation. Three quarters of Church history as it now stands had already passed under the bridge before the first assumption of sola Scriptura was even met.
- Because the practical assumptions required by sola Scriptura are not now met, nor ever have been met by the average Christian in world history, we must conclude that sola Scriptura is not God’s design for how the average Christian in world history is to learn his theology. Put simply, sola Scriptura is not God’s plan.
- How, then, did the sola Scriptura theory come into being? It is interesting to note that it first popped up in Church history shortly after the invention of the printing press.
- At that time there was a class of people who did have the education, the nutrition, the literacy, and most importantly, the money to buy copies of Scripture for themselves, now that the printing press had made the much easier to make and afford.
- This upper-middle class/upper-class group got exited: “Hey! We could give a copy of the Bible to everyone! No longer would people be dependant on what the priest says; they could read Scripture for themselves!This is so great!”
- But the majority of people in their day, before their day, and since their day have not fit the profile that would make sola Scriptura even potentially a feasible option.
- It is thus hard to think of sola Scriptura as anything but the theory spawned by a bunch of idealistic, Renaissance-era dilettantes–people who had an interest in being their own theologians, who had a classical education in critical thinking skills, who had adequate nutrition, who had plenty of leisure time for study, who had plenty of scholarly support materials, who had good reading skills, who had access to Bible-sellers, and most importantly, who had printed Bibles!
- The average Christian today, even the average Christian in the developed world, does not fit that profile, and the average Christian in world history certainly did not, much less the average Christian in the early centuries. What this means, since God does not ask a person to do what they are incapable of doing, is that God does not expect the average Christian of world history to use sola scriptura. He expects the average Christian to obtain and maintain his knowledge of theology in some other way.
- But if God expects the average Christian to obtain and maintain the Christian faith without using sola scriptura, then sola scriptura is not God’s plan.
- In order to truly know and understand God’s will, one must turn one’s back on the arrogant idea of sola Scriptura and humble one’s self, not trusting in one’s proud, intellectual abilities, but humbly listening to the source that the average Christian has always turned to in world history—Christ’s Church. In so doing, one not only finds the true will of God, but one finds the virtues of humility and faith instead of the false virtues of independence and freethought.
- Not only should one look elsewhere than Scripture alone for one’s information, I can tell you where to start looking.
- The Catholic Church has a form of “methodological primacy” that claims your attentions.
- If you were a Martian, coming down to earth for the first time, and you wished to know what humans believe, you would quickly discover that most humans (one third of them) are Christians.
- If you then wanted to know what Christianity teaches, you would look to the beliefs of most Christians, and in so doing would discover that the Catholic Church is the largedy body of Christians on earth, larger than all other Christian bodies put together. In fact, better than one in six human beings is a Catholic.
- The Catholic Church would thus be the first church you turned to for an explanation of Christian belief.
- When you then discovered that, taking into account the Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox church and other Eastern churches, that 75% of Christians agree on 95% of theology, you would conclude that you had a real line on the bulk of what Christians believe.
- When you then discovered that there was a small 25% group which was hopelessly fragmented amongst itself, disagreeing on all kinds of doctrine, and only giving verbal assent (but different interpretations) to its two chief slogans—”faith alone” and “Scripture alone”–you would save this group for last of all. It would go to the bottom of the rung and would be investigated last, after all of Christian groups.
- Needless to say, this reflects Jesus’ teaching, “If you love one another, the world will know you are my disciples.” Those who are internally and visibly fragmented into different organizations do not show Christ’s love and unity, and so go to the bottom of the methodological pile.
- For this reason you, as Evangelical theology students, owe it to yourselves and to your eternal souls to break away from the Protestant cultural context of this country and to consider Christianity from a global and historical perspective, seriously and openmindedly examining the question of wheter you should become Catholic.
- I am convinced that any reasoned, openminded examination of the evicence will show that you should, that Catholicism is true. And so I am sure that, both from what you have heard here and from what you will read outside this class, that you, too, will discover why you should be Catholic. Thank you.