to sola scriptura ii

Aelianus’s fuller exposition of his views on sola scriptura is here, and I’m going to follow his good example of putting a post-sized response in a post (since my reaction outgrew the Laodicean comment boxes almost as soon as it got started).

There seem to be two basic misconceptions about what’s even under discussion.

1) Sola scriptura is not a claim that everything which the apostles taught by word of mouth was written down. Rather it is a claim that all things necessary for faith and practice are provided by Scripture. So the fact of, eg, John saying the world couldn’t contain the books that would be needed to record what the Lord did, is no objection to sola scriptura: the claim has never been that the Bible contains all truth or everything that God has ever revealed.

2) Sola scriptura is not a claim that the Church has no authority. So prooftexts to demonstrate that the apostles had unique authority in the church, and that their successors (albeit our understanding of succession is not shared) have power to bind and loose, etc, are beside the point. The point is the nature of the Church’s authority and how it relates to the authority of Scripture: while we confess that the Church has authority to declare what Scripture teaches on doctrine and practice, the Church has no authority to go beyond Scripture in what she teaches. The Church is not meant to rely on herself to declare authoritatively on questions of doctrine or duty, but rather on Scripture.

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Let me deal with one other point here before getting back to the question of sola scriptura itself: canonicity – related, but not the question itself. Questions about sola scriptura take to do with the nature of the scripture [coming back to this in the next para]; questions about canoncity take to do with what gets recognised as scripture. On the OT canon, the claim that ‘the Protestant canon of the OT did not exist in Our Lord’s time’ has no New Testament support. The Gospels record Jesus appealing constantly to a known, fixed body of writings in his disputations with the Pharisees and Sadducees, and these were the writings which the Apostles used to demonstrate the truth of their claim that the Messiah had indeed come, eg. So the strategy of discrediting the Jewish Scriptures is not only a mischaracterisation of the situation that obtained at the time of Christ but is also really fatal to the gospel of the New Testament (which relies on the revelation in the Old Testament). As for the ‘Protestant canon of the NT’ – whatever Luther’s “rejection” of any NT books looked like in practice, his views were never ‘the Protestant’ view. You don’t need to project your imagination of how a Protestant should according to your analysis view the pronouncements of a Protestant figurehead, as if Protestants just can’t help supplying themselves with inadequate Pope-substitutes who only embarrass them by saying awkward things. The Protestant canon is identified in the Protestant creeds/confessions, not the overinterpreted speculations of one Protestant theologian, and the Reformation confessions are unanimous on the extent of the canon.
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Returning to: the nature of Scripture itself. Aelianus thinks I should think that most of Scripture is superfluous because I’ve said that John wrote enough to convince anyone that Jesus is the Christ. But that’s not exactly where I was going with that. The position is rather that all the Scriptures are a revelation that has been given by God himself, and as such it has certain characteristics. That means that the Gospel of John has the same qualities as any other part of God’s revelation, and vice versa. It’s not as if the Bible is a random assortment of isolated texts with no cohesion, whose message has to be treated as tentative until it gets external approbation. Rather, this is the revelation that unfolded as God gave it, and each piece that he gave both connects organically with the other pieces he gave, and has intrinsically and in its own right the properties of a divine revelation. Such as, divine truthfulness, divine authority, and divine fitness-for-purpose. The argument from John is not just that the segment in the Bible called John’s Gospel contains enough for someone to believe that Jesus is the Christ, but that John’s Gospel being a part of God’s revelation has the property of providing the basis for anyone to believe that Jesus is the Christ and have life through his name. It’s due to being what God has spoken. Not just John’s gospel but the holy scriptures in general are able to make someone wise unto salvation.

Which brings me finally round to 2 Timothy, and to say that what Aelianus gives with one hand by way of affirmation of the authority of Scripture, he takes with the other when he continues to say ‘it does not contain all that is morally necessary to persevere in God’s grace…’ Referring to 2 Timothy, Aelianus says, “That the scriptures render one complete would only constitute a claim to their sufficiency if it were the scriptures with which one began.” But there doesn’t need to be any doubt about this: as it happens, Timothy did begin with the Scriptures, as Paul’s direction makes clear: “Continue in the things which you have learned and been assured of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known the holy scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation.” The scriptures which Timothy had known from childhood were able – had an innate ability to accomplish their stated purpose – to make him wise for salvation. Calling Scripture ‘profitable’ doesn’t here mean that Scripture supplements something else – Paul says Scripture is profitable (for doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness) to make the man of God complete, and fully equipped for every good work. There’s really no wiggle room here. If the man of God wants to be perfect, or equipped for any good work, the resource he is meant to turn to is the scripture which God breathed out. Scripture claims that Scripture provides all the doctrine and instruction to make a man perfect.

The alternative is for the man to think himself wiser than Timothy, wiser than Paul who advised Timothy, and wiser than God who inspired Paul. That’s why it just isn’t good enough to affirm that Scripture is authoritative, inspired, inerrant, … and then stop short of confessing that it’s sufficient for doctrine and practice. To the extent that someone thinks that Scripture needs to be supplemented by some top-up revelation, or some parallel transmission of revelation, to that extent they are effectively rejecting the authority which Scripture itself claims for itself as the complete encapsulation of everything necessary for doctrine and practice (and then exacerbating it in proportion to the unscripturalness of the doctrines or practices which they think is included in the content of that extra revelation).

 

sola scriptura in the scriptures

So the redoutable Aelianus of England is on the warpath again, as I discovered last week but was too busy dealing with Deadline Issues to do much about.

Sola scriptura, he says, is self-evidently silly, yet he explains how, with a bit of mental gymnastics, the thinking Catholic can eventually come to see that those who hold to it need not in fact be either stupid or malicious.

Orfly kind of him, say we, but don’t waste your pity just yet. Sola scriptura is nowhere near as absurd as he makes out.

For one thing, the first claim, ‘scripture never says it is the all-sufficient norm of doctrine, in fact it denies it,’ is simply wrong. Scripture does claim to be the all-sufficient norm of doctrine, in various places and ways, some more explicit than others.

  • That part of Scripture called 2 Timothy states both that the holy scriptures are able to make a person wise to salvation, and that scripture is sufficient to make the man of God perfect and (not partially, but) thoroughly equipped for every good work.
  • The Gospel according to John specifically states that while it does not provide an exhaustive record of the works of Jesus, still, what it does contain is enough to warrant anyone to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, so that by believing they would have life through his name.
  • The 2nd Epistle of Peter states that scripture is a more sure word of prophecy (than audible voices from heaven), and correspondingly more able to safeguard us from following cunningly devised fables.
  • The scriptures of the Old Testament in general are replete with authoritative claims, ‘Thus saith the Lord,’ and were in themselves sufficient to reveal Christ savingly to their readers (according to Christ in John 5) and to save them from soul-destroying errors of doctrine (according to Christ in Matthew 22); and when the apostles claimed to be writing scripture on a par with the Old Testament (as Peter did for Paul, 2 Pet 3v16; as Paul did for Luke, 1 Tim 5v18; etc), they were laying claim to their writings having the same characteristics – divine authority, revelation of saving truth, and repository of true doctrine.
  • Finally, to make this anywhere near manageably brief, whenever the apostles warned people against false doctrine, they never directed them anywhere other than their own teachings to find the truth. The only place where apostolic teaching is known to exist subsequent to the apostles themselves is in the inspired Scriptures. These are where the apostles declare things for us to know the certainty of the things in which we have been instructed, Luke 1. These are where we find the gospel they preached infallibly preserved, so that we can know to reject any alternative gospel, whether preached by man or angel, Galatians 1. These, jointly with the writings of the prophets, are the foundation on which the church is built, both for faith and morals. There is never the least hint that believers should turn to any resource outside the Scriptures in order to determine questions of doctrine or duty: the Scriptures themselves are, and claim to be, that very resource.

Also false is the other claim, ‘The scriptures cannot authorise themselves‘ (hence the need for an authority outside the scriptures to establish ‘the material content of revelation’). The truth is that the Scriptures do authorise themselves.

  • This is particularly clear for the Old Testament, which was accepted among God’s people purely on the weight of its own authority. Every time the phrase, “Thus saith the Lord,” occurs in the Old Testament scriptures, it is a straightforward, unarguable, claim to divine authority. At the time of Christ and the apostles, “the scripture saith” was perfectly synonymous with “God says” (as in, eg, Paul in Rom 9v17, Gal 3v2, Acts 28v25).
  • Then, as the Old Testament scriptures were simply received by Israel in Old Testament times, so in New Testament times, the New Testament scriptures were simply received by the church. The scriptures of the New Testament are divinely inspired hence divinely authoritative hence obediently to be received in exactly the same way as were the Scriptures of the Old Testament. The idea that some collection either of Israelites or churchmen first sat down in judgment on whether or not to accept God’s own revelation as authoritative, is completely back to front.
  • There is, in short, a world of difference between receiving something as the word of men and receiving it as the word of God – thankfully, when the gospel came to the Thessalonians, they received it, not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the Word of God. Far from the Scriptures being a product of the Spirit through the Church, as some folk would have us believe, the fact is that the Church is a product of the Spirit through the instrumentality of the Word. The Scriptures no more derive their authority from the Church than gravity derives its force from Sir Isaac Newton.

Two bold claims about Scripture, straightforwardly contradicted by Scripture. But where do claims like these come from? not, surely, from a faith that says, ‘Speak, Lord, for thy servant heareth,’ but from an alternative that keeps the scriptures at arm’s length, doesn’t recognise Scripture’s own claims about itself, and neglects to come close enough to God’s own revelation to be instructed by it on its own terms. Attacks on the authority and sufficiency of God’s Word are nothing new, but there is something markedly unattractive about them when they come from within what is meant to be part of the church, the institution set up to be the guardian of the once-for-all deposit of divine truth in the world. Thinking Catholics need to think smarter on this. The kind and degree of respect, attention, and obedience which the scriptures deserve and demand they are content to devote to some other, competitor source of authority which God hasn’t mentioned in the word he has given to us. Instead of making a virtue out of submitting to a spurious authority what they should reserve for divine authority (namely, their conscience on matters of faith and practice), let them be invited to step back into line with the church catholic by recovering the courage and faith to find God’s authoritative revelation of all things necessary for faith and practice in the one place he has contained it, the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.

 

stop calling it public

One of the biggest contributors to fuzzy thinking around the exclusive use of psalms in worship is, I think, inadequate terminology. I’ve lost count of the times that discussions have got hopelessly muddled because people got so hung up on defining “public” worship as opposed to “private” worship. So, the conundrum goes, if you think it’s okay to sing hymns in “private” worship, what suddenly changes to make hymns unacceptable in “public” worship.

But the scenario leads you up two separate garden paths. One is that the distinction isn’t really public vs private. It’s nothing to do with the numbers of people involved or what kind of building you’re in or how widely advertised your meeting has been. In fact, you could just about plausibly imagine somebody having morning devotions with their family of seven (“private” worship) then going off to church in some rural congregation of six (“public” worship). The numbers have nothing to do with it.

The distinction behind the public/private terminology is actually more like private vs corporate, or individual vs ecclesiastical. It’s the difference between what you do as an individual (or as a family) and what you do as the church. Christian believers are meant to gather together to worship God together – ‘meant to,’ in the sense of divinely required to: it’s what God expects his people collectively to do. A worship service doesn’t exist to let people socialise, or let people keep up a weekly routine, or give people the chance of a religious experience, or or or. Instead, it’s the church assembling as such to worship as such. It’s the church meeting as the church to do churchly things. That means confessing what the church confesses, submitting to the church’s authority, and benefitting from the church’s ministry, oracles, and ordinances, as these have been instituted there by Christ.

The other false scent in the “Well, you sing hymns at home” scenario is that it assumes that what you’re doing when you’re singing hymns at home really is worship. This is the murky, foggy, shapeshifting outcome of the principle piously formulated as “all of life is worship”. This assumes that anything you do, and especially the more overtly religious it is, should be regarded as worship (and affirmed and respected as worship). But the principle is too pious to be true – the kind of thing that’s designed to dissolve you into a little puddle of gloopy sanctimoniousness before you can direct so much as a critical thought towards it. All of life (eating, drinking, whatever you do) should be devoted to the glory of God, but not all of life is worship. All of life includes doing the dishes, doing the photocopying, going for messages, being on Facebook, changing nappies, taking phonecalls, and all the endless trivia of the everyday. All of these can and should be done to the glory of God – but they are not worship. It doesn’t matter how many Christian graces you exercise in these activities or to what degree – your devotional input, or the devotional impact they have on you, is never going to make them into worship.

That also means that doing an everyday thing in a religious context also doesn’t make it worship. Toilet cleaning doesn’t become a worship activity just because it’s the church toilets. Writing poetry doesn’t become worship just because it’s poetry about some theological proposition or some religious experience. Singing a song doesn’t become worship just because it includes the words “Jesus” or “grace”. In fact, the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by himself, and limited by his own revealed will in such a way that he may not be worshipped according to human imaginations and devices, or any way not prescribed in Scripture. That means that strictly speaking, if God doesn’t prescribe it, it doesn’t count as worship. Including singing hymns plus or minus instruments, on your own or with your family. Direct extrapolation from ‘good thing to do’ to ‘legitimate in corporate worship’ is wholly inappropriate. If you’re going to call it worship, it needs divine prescription.

Public worship is church worship. Rather than things being okay in “private worship” which aren’t okay in “public worship,” it might actually be more accurate to think of ‘private worship’ as including only a subset of things which belong to ‘public worship’. It’s only in a corporate, church, context that the element of worship called preaching can ever be experienced. Ditto for the administering and receiving of the sacraments. On your own, in private, as an individual, or in your family, the most you can do by way of worship is read the Scriptures, not preach from them – you can pray, and sing psalms, but receiving the sacraments privately is an irregularity at best. Armed with the twin convictions that ‘public worship’ is church worship, and that anything needs scripture warrant before it can properly be regarded as worship, people would be in a much stronger position to withstand the slushy, subjective, individualistic approach to “worship” that continues to harrass the church scene.