Alpha & Omega Ministries Apologetics Blog
Jimmy Akin Replies
06/12/2006 - James WhiteA few days ago I posted an article showing that Roman Catholic apologist Jimmy Akin of Catholic Answers had demonstrated a basic lack of research in responding to a question regarding the Corban rule, Matthew 15, and sola scriptura. I documented that one of the leading Catholic apologists was unaware of the specifics of the discussion regarding Jewish sources, Tractate Aboth, the Jewish view of tradition, etc., as it relates to this issue, even though this information had been available, published, on the web, and had appeared in debates with Roman Catholic apologists, in my own works, for a full decade. The question had been asked of him why I make such a "big deal" out of the Corban rule, and in my response I pointed out the substance of the argument: that given the background of how the Rabbis viewed their "traditions" as coming from Moses outside the written Scriptures and hence being "divine" in origin Jesus' words give us an inescapable example, a vital paradigm, that we must follow: when men claim "divine tradition" we test it by Scripture, we do not simply accept the claim at face value. Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for allowing this allegedly divine "tradition" to make void God's Word. Hence, when Roman Catholic apologists rather glibly respond to Matthew 15 with, "Oh, He was just talking about human traditions there," we must respond, "No, He was not, for the Jews believed the very tradition He singles out was divine in origin."
Now in reading Mr. Akin's response I was struck immediately by the odd way he begins. "James White has now supplied a current description of his thought on the korban passage and sola scriptura, so let's look at what he says." A current description? This almost sounds as if Mr. Akin is trying to say I had not, in fact, plainly made these arguments a decade ago. I note he does not actually address the reality that he gave a false answer to his correspondent in his initial blog article and that he had no reason for doing so other than the attitude, prevalent, in my experience, at Catholic Answers, of not seeming to care much about what anyone is actually saying about current apologetic issues. I am reminded of my debate on purgatory with Father Peter Stravinskas, who had clearly never read any of my books, articles, or listened to any of my debates, and hence was caught utterly unprepared, for he obviously did not think anyone outside Rome could have anything meaningful to say on the subject. That seems to be a fairly common problem with many people: many non-Catholics get caught flat footed by a sharp Roman Catholic apologist because they make the same kind of assumption in reverse. But for someone in Akin's position, it makes no sense.
Now for some reason Mr. Akin begins with a discussion of what is a plain teaching and what is not, which, to be honest, strikes me as little more than sophistry. The Jewish claim about the Corban rule is parallel to the Roman claim about its "tradition." Let's keep our eyes on the ball. Note just a brief example:
The argument is plain: Jewish tradition about the Corban rule made it a tradition that had a divine pedigree, though passed down outside of Scripture. Jesus specifically subjugated it to Scripture, hence, to follow His lead, we, too, would have to test all traditions by the higher standard of Scripture.
"To follow His lead" is another way of saying "to follow his example," so here Mr. White acknowledges that he is appealing to Mark 7 as a passage in which Jesus is teaching by example, and thus he must be able to find in this passage a "plain teaching" that "we are to examine all traditions by the higher standard of [Scripture]."
A difficulty for this claim is the one faced by all instances of trying to derive "plain teaching" from teaching by example: The extent to which the example is to be followed is often not clear.
It is too easy to improperly minimize or maximize the extent to which the example applies.
I'm sorry, but how about just getting to the point of whether the Lord Jesus did, in fact, address an allegedly divine Jewish tradition by holding His hearers accountable to testing such traditions by Scripture? The irony is the clarity of this example; we are talking about direct parallels on the very same subject. So note Akin's examples and how they are not, in fact, even relevant to the real point at hand:
E.g., many (including myself) would say that the example of Jesus' example of holiness and self-sacrifice was being improperly minimized if it were maintained that only he needed to be holy and self-sacrificing and that, because of what he did, we are free to be unholy and selfish.
Similarly, many (including myself) would say that the example of Jesus was being improperly maximized if it were maintained that individual Christians--like he--should assert that our relationship with God is so close that "No man comes to the Father but by me" (John 14:6).
Those are clear cases, but they make the point: Examples can be improperly minimized or maximized.
OK, that's fine, but 1) so far we still have no acknowledgement of, "Oh, I guess White was clear about this all along, I just don't bother reading Protestant apologists or listening to their debates," and 2) Jesus spoke of an allegedly divine tradition, which is the whole point in dealing with Rome's claims on the subject, hence, the text is directly applicable.
But instead of getting to the point immediately, we have another side-trip first. Given the complexity of Rome's view of tradition (indeed, can we even ponder "Rome's view of tradition," since there are so many variations, and Rome seems to be evolving and changing with each passing year?) a discussion of different kinds of tradition follows, followed by,
The real question is whether extrascriptural traditions can be authoritative in the way Scripture is, not whether they are merely consistent with Scripture. Being inconsistent with Scripture is an indicator that a tradition is non-authoritative, but it is the question of authority that is in focus at present.
The fact that we are talking about extra-scriptural "tradition" has been part and parcel of my discussion from the start. We are still not really covering any new ground. Akin then asks, "It seems clear that Jesus considers the korban tradition non-authoritative because it conflicts with one's obligations under the Ten Commandments, but to what extent is the non-authoritativeness of this tradition generalizable?" Given that Christ upbraids His listeners, in fact, identifies them as hypocrites, does it not follow that this was not some complicated, difficult issue requiring pages of close reasoning to come to the proper conclusion? I would think that is fairly obvious. But despite this, we are given a set of "hypothetical possibilities" by Mr. Akin:
1) It is only the korban tradition which is non-authoritative.
2) It is those Pharisaical traditions which conflict with Scripture that are non-authoritative.
3) It is Pharisaical traditions in general that are non-authoritative.
4) It is those pre-Christian Jewish traditions that conflict with Scripture that are non-authoritative.
5) It is pre-Christian Jewish tradition in general that is non-authoritative.
6) It is oral (as opposed to written) tradition in general that is non-authoritative.
7) It is any tradition at all (including written) that is non-authoritative.
This list is non-exhaustive. There are other possibilities as well, and not all of the ones listed above are plausible ones.
In particular, I think #1 and #7 are very implausible.
I think we can see now why non-Catholics have marveled for a long time at the ability of Rome's defenders to complicate the simplest issues (the term normally used is "sophistry"). Though it is a bit of a side-issue again, Akin comments in passing,
#7 is particularly implausible because it would undercut the authoritativeness of Scripture, since Scripture is itself something that is handed down to us and thus is tradition (from the Latin, traditio "the act of handing on/over"; cognate of tradere, "to hand on/over").
It is not a Scriptural teaching that Scripture itself is "tradition." This involves equivocation. The Bible's teaching on its own nature sets it apart from the tradition of the Pharisees, for example. If we limit ourselves to the definition given above we do not do justice to the Word's own teaching about the divine nature, and uniqueness, of Scripture.
In any case, given the "hypotheticals" listed above, Akin concludes that we cannot actually come to the conclusion that what Jesus says here provides us with a plain teaching or example. Evidently, if you can come up with a list of hypothetical possibilities, then nothing is actually "clear" at all. The reader will forgive me if I do not leap off the cliff of uncertainty in light of this kind of compelling argumentation. Let's blow away some of this smoke and refocus:
First, when I said "the argument is plain" I was talking about what I have said about this topic for ten years in light of Akin's ignorance thereof. He has taken that single statement and turned the actual issue (his own misrepresentation, based upon not doing his homework, of my position, and his actually not even addressing the real issue as a result) into a discussion of hypotheticals about the extent of "tradition" in Jesus' words in Matthew 15. The facts remain, however:
1) Jesus chose an extra-scriptural Jewish tradition that was claimed to be divine in its origin;
2) Jesus identified as hypocrites those who nullified the Scriptures by following this tradition.
Therefore, it follows that:
1) Scripture possesses an authority materially different than extra-scriptural tradition to which all men are accountable, and
2) The teaching of Scripture is sufficiently clear to allow the Lord to upbraid with the strongest language those who failed to reject the Corban practice in light of the words of Scripture.
I might add, just for the benefit of the reader, that these words are addressed to the very spiritual leadership of the nation of Israel. If there is some need for some extra-scriptural interpretational guidance, who was supposed to provide if not these very men? And yet they are the ones being held accountable for negating the Scriptures for the sake of their tradition! It seems that when you create unbiblical, unwarranted ecclesiastical authorities (like the Papacy), there is a grave danger that authority will do whatever it needs to do to perpetuate its own existence.
The fact that Jesus can be shown to have regarded one tradition as non-authoritative (because it conflicts with the Ten Commandments) does not mean that he regarded all traditions as non-authoritative.
And my argument from the start has been that given the nature of the "traditions of the fathers" and the Jewish view of extra-Scriptural "tradition" as seen in the Corban practice and "many other such things" to use Jesus' words, we have warrant for rejecting the excuse, offered by Catholic Answers itself, that "Jesus was only rejecting human traditions, not divine traditions." And I have to ask: if Jesus held them accountable for such testing then, with the much more limited amount of scriptural revelation they possessed, how much more will we be held accountable?
Akin continues to miss the point when he writes,
This constitutes a problem for Mr. White if he wishes to maintain that Jesus' example at the korban incident means that all extrascriptural tradition is to be regarded as non-authoritative.
Notice the less-than-subtle shift and resultant red herring: it has never been my argument that "all extrascriptural tradition is to be regarded as non-authoritative." I said Jesus taught us to test all extra-scriptural tradition by Scripture itself. Note the difference. Roman Catholic apologists have a long history of misrepresenting sola scriptura despite being corrected on the issue repeatedly. Here is just one example from long ago. Evidently, this continues to be a staple of Roman Catholic apologetics argumentation. And so Akin can glibly conclude,
So Mr. White is wrong about what Jesus was teaching his audience with his example in the korban incident. He wasn't saying that all traditions apart from Scripture are non-authoritative; he was excepting those that he himself would pass on to the Church--i.e., apostolic or sacred Tradition.
How amazing! Does Mr. Akin truly believe his audience will either 1) completely trust him so that they will not even consider what I have written, or 2) blindly ignore the glaring misrepresentation he presents, which flies in the face once again of all my published works wherein I have discussed the relationship between Scripture and lesser authorities, again for over a decade? I am left wondering just who it is Mr. Akin is writing for. Surely it is not for anyone who is listening to both sides!
After all of this posturing, finally, only as an addendum, does Akin finally get to the actual point:
1) Mr. White appears to think it significant that the Pharisees he spoke with regarded korban as a divine tradition. I don't know that these Pharisees did think this (they may have just thought it was a permitted inference rather than something actually passed down from Moses), but suppose they did.
If so, this shows that some traditions can be erroneously regarded as divine.
Amazing. Utterly amazing. What has been my point from day one (remember, Akin chose to attempt to address a question about my view of the Corban rule. It is not my fault he doesn't read what Protestant apologists say about his teachings. If you are going to pretend to provide replies, then do your homework. Otherwise, do what I do when people ask me such questions: "Sorry, not my area.")? That the answer, offered by Roman Catholic apologists (such as Mark Brumley at a conference in Phoenix in 1991), that Jesus only condemned human traditions and not divine traditions is refuted by this text. Period.
The fact that some traditions of the Pharisees were erroneously regarded as divine does not mean that all traditions are erroneously regarded as divine. (That would be the hasty generalization fallacy once again.)
If one happens upon a genuinely divine tradition (like those Jesus handed onto the apostles) then it will be divinely authoritative.
Once again, one is left shaking one's head. The point is that to follow Jesus' example we have to know the difference. What Jesus "passed on" to His apostles the Holy Spirit of God provided to the Church in the God-breathed Scriptures. If Mr. Akin would like to take up the challenge that his compatriots have continuously avoided, that of demonstrating a single word of Jesus or the Apostles dogmatically defined by Rome that exists outside of Scripture, I'd like to hear it.
Ironically, Akin stumbles onto the truth in passing only toward the end of this long, tortured post. "It is true that any genuinely divine tradition will not contradict what is in Scripture, making it possible to compare the two and see if they conflict. If there is an irresolvable conflict then the tradition in question must not be divine." There we go. And how does one know this? How could Jesus have held men accountable so as to call them hypocrites? Was it because they had access to Rome, perhaps? Surely not. The Scriptures were clear enough and sufficient enough for the Lord to hold men accountable to use them to test even those traditions claimed to be divine. This is the whole point. Akin then tries to introduce a hypothetical to say that there are times when Apostolic tradition was the norm, forgetting that 1) the only record we have of inspired revelation from the Apostles is found in Scripture, and 2) we do not live in that time period anymore hence speculative arguments derived therefrom are irrelevant to answering how we are to apply the example of Christ today. His concluding remark is:
The point has been established that the korban incident does not show that all extrascriptural traditions are non-authoritative: If it did, Jesus would have been undercutting his own teaching.
And since everyone knows that was never my argument, we have yet another example to add to the long list of such replies coming out of San Diego (many of which you can examine here).
One further note. Evidently one of those posting on Akin's blog made reference to the question of whether the Corban rule was, in fact, viewed as having an oral history going back to Moses, based upon the fact that the Mishnah represents a text codified about two centuries after the time of Christ. Ironically, if you will go back to the sources I initially cited in my first response, I raised the Tractate Aboth issue in response to David Palm's use of the same sources. Ironic that Roman Catholic apologists can utilize such sources without question, but if I use the same sources, a question arises. Be that as it may, what is more likely: that the Corban rule, which is so self-evidently opposed to the moral constitution of mankind, would be elevated after its refutation by Jesus in Jewish tradition (and after the destruction of the Temple!) or that Aboth is in fact representing for us a true Rabbinic tradition, replete with the names of the Rabbis to whom this material was supposedly entrusted? While it is always good to avoid the immediate conclusion that if something is in the Mishnah it represents Second Temple Judaism, at the same time, when the term itself is found in both sources, the outlines of the belief/practice coincide, etc., the burden is then on the one who would question the continuity, not the one who would accept it.