Alpha & Omega Ministries Apologetics Blog
Christian Apologetics Journal Book Review: A Response (II)
09/14/2005 - James WhiteThis is even more clearly seen when MacKenzie raises the issue of solo scriptura in these words:
White states that "the doctrine of sola scriptura is based on the nature of the Scriptures as the Word of God" (62). To demonstrate that this doctrine was held in the church prior to the Reformation, he quotes from Basil of Caesarea (c. A.D. 330-379) (55). Unfortunately, many evangelicals, intent on protecting sola scriptura form its Catholic alternative, have embraced who [sic] Keith A. Mathison terms "solo" scriptura. This is the attempt to interpret without recourse to the ecumenical councils and creeds, classically called the regula fidei ("rule of faith").
Is MacKenzie saying I am guilty of holding to solo scriptura? It is hard to avoid that impression, though he does not come right out and make the statement. Who are these evangelicals who have fallen into this alleged trap if not me? And if it is not me, why bother mentioning it here in a review of my own position on sola scriptura?
In reference to the idea of solo scriptura, I wrote in Scripture Alone:
In his book The Shape of Sola Scriptura, Keith Mathison contrasts sola scriptura with what he calls solo scriptura. Many of the criticisms Mathison aims at solo scriptura have already been enumerated above. It is quite true that there are non-Catholics who wave the banner of sola scriptura as a cloak to hide their dislike of the Bible’s teaching about the church, authority, and Christian truth. That is why it has properly been said that to hold to sola scriptura one must likewise firmly hold to tota scriptura, a belief in, and acceptance of, all the Bible reveals. Sola scriptura is mocked when the entirety of the God-breathed revelation is not obediently read and followed. And since the Scriptures speak of the church, teaching in the church, exhortation, rebuke, and the like, those who seek to make sola scriptura an excuse for being anti-church or simply heretical have no basis in the doctrine for their position. So I can join in this portion of the criticism of solo scriptura.
But on the other hand, does sola scriptura require us to believe that there is a “tradition” or a “rule of faith” to which we must appeal so as to have the “proper” interpretation of the Bible? There is no question that early Christian writers used this term, and many are quick to leap upon it with glee. But when we examine the meaning of the term, we discover that for the large portion of them, it referred either to a basic, foundational outline of Christian belief concerning God and Christ, or, to beliefs about practices and rites that were not doctrinal or dogmatic in nature. Irenaeus defined his “tradition” as follows:
These have all declared to us that there is one God, Creator of heaven and earth, announced by the law and the prophets; and one Christ, the Son of God. If any one do not agree to these truths, he despises the companions of the Lord; nay more, he despises Christ Himself the Lord; yea, he despises the Father also, and stands self-condemned, resisting and opposing his own salvation, as is the case with all heretics (ANF 1:414-415).Obviously, the content of this “tradition” is not extra-scriptural: the Bible plainly teaches these things. Tertullian, writing later, has an expanded version:
Now, with regard to this rule of faith - that we may from this point acknowledge what it is which we defend - it is, you must know, that which prescribes the belief that there is one only God, and that He is none other than the Creator of the world, who produced all things out of nothing through His own Word, first of all sent forth; that this Word is called His Son, and, under the name of God, was seen “in diverse manners” by the patriarchs, heard at all times in the prophets, at last brought down by the Spirit and Power of the Father into the Virgin Mary, was made flesh in her womb, and, being born of her, went forth as Jesus Christ; thenceforth He preached the new law and the new promise of the kingdom of heaven, worked miracles; having been crucified, He rose again the third day; (then) having ascended into the heavens, He sat at the right hand of the Father; sent instead of Himself the Power of the Holy Ghost to lead such as believe; will come with glory to take the saints to the enjoyment of everlasting life and of the heavenly promises, and to condemn the wicked to everlasting fire, after the resurrection of both these classes shall have happened, together with the restoration of their flesh. This rule, as it will be proved, was taught by Christ, and raises amongst ourselves no other questions than those which heresies introduce, and which make men heretics.But again, this is all sub-biblical; that is, it can be derived from the inspired text. It does not exist as a separate revelation outside of Scripture. And if all one means when one speaks of the “apostolic tradition” and “interpreting the Scriptures in light of the rule of faith” is that there are certain non-negotiables that are foundational to a proper understanding of Scripture and the Christian faith, there can hardly be any argument. All one need do is see the relatively few attempts that have been made by LDS scholars to provide exegetical commentary on the text of Scripture, and especially of the New Testament literature, and the impossibility of such a task in light of a belief in polytheism, to see this truth. One must understand the most basic outlines of Christian truth to delve more deeply into the revelation of Scripture, and if one begins with errors at that point, the rest of one’s efforts will be in vain. If this is all that is meant by “the rule of faith,” then such is surely understandable.
In fact, one could go one more step and say that the rule of faith represents the summary of apostolic doctrine that existed even during the time when the New Testament documents were being written. It coincides with the text for the obvious reason that the Apostles were the author of both, though it should be noted that their written testimony in Scripture is more sure (and surely more specific) than the “rule of faith.” But it is eminently logical to assume that as the New Testament was being written, a summary of Christian truth was known and circulated. However, it is just here that we again see the wisdom of God in the means He used to give Scripture. In contrast to the dependability and verifiability of the written manuscripts of the Bible, word-of-mouth passing on of tradition is inherently subject to corruption, and that very quickly. A particularly striking example of this is provided in what may well be the first documented instance of a Christian writer specifically claiming to have information derived not from Scripture but orally from the apostles via “tradition.” When Irenaeus sought to refute the arguments of the gnostics of the second century, he made reference to a particular element of one of their arguments. And quite simply, he “missed the boat.” Their argument was irrelevant, and his response was errant. In attempting to refute them, Irenaeus posited the idea that Jesus was more than fifty years old when He died upon Calvary. He asserted that since Christ came to save infants, and children, and boys, and youths, and old men, then he had to go through all those stages of life Himself. How can he prove Jesus was this old? He insists that he was told this by those who knew the apostles. Listen to his words:
Now, that the first stage of early life embraces thirty years, and that this extends onwards to the fortieth year, every one will admit; but from the fortieth and fiftieth year a man begins to decline towards old age, which our Lord possessed while He still fulfilled the office of a Teacher, even as the Gospel and all the elders testify; those who were conversant in Asia with John, the disciple of the Lord, [affirming] that John conveyed to them that information. And he remained among them up to the times of Trajan. Some of them, moreover, saw not only John, but the other apostles also, and heard the very same account from them, and bear testimony as to the [validity of] the statement. Whom then should we rather believe?Note what Irenaeus claims, for church history is filled with this kind of error. There is no textual reason to believe Jesus was more than fifty years of age, yet, Irenaeus claims “the Gospel” as part of the foundation of his view. But he quickly adds weight to his view by saying “the Gospel and all the elders.” He buttresses his claim by insisting that “those who were conversant in Asia with John, the disciple of the Lord” conveyed this information. But since that didn’t seem to be enough, he expands the claim beyond John, so that this concept of Jesus’ age is claimed to come from “the other apostles also.” Irenaeus is writing within a century of the death of John. Yet, does anyone today actually believe that not only John, but the rest of the apostles likewise, taught their followers that Jesus was in His sixth decade of life when He died? No one believes Irenaeus’ arguments, for they are not textually grounded, and yet, to not believe this means that Irenaeus was either lying when he wrote these words, or, that “oral tradition” can be corrupted very quickly.
Two lessons can be learned from Irenaeus at this point: first, in reference to the idea that there is an apostolically originated “rule of faith,” the only possible grounds for accepting such a concept would be first to see it as merely a summary statement of apostolic teaching, and we would have to obtain this summary from all across the spectrum of early Christian writing, not from any one particular source. And this is pretty much what we see. The earliest examples are very basic, very brief, but over time it “expands.” Obviously, the expansions are subject to suspicion. But we also see a concern that this rule of faith come from all across the spectrum of ancient churches, not just from a single church or group of churches. The wider the testimony, the more solid the foundation upon which to rest the rule of faith.
Secondly, it seems impossible to avoid concluding that if an allegedly apostolic tradition can be corrupted in less than a century, how can we take seriously the claim of Rome that her Marian dogmas, and in particular such beliefs as the Immaculate Conception and the Bodily Assumption, beliefs not even mentioned in their modern form for centuries of church history, and not dogmatically defined until recent years, are truly apostolic in origin and form? Surely one would have to see such dogmas as divine revelation on the same ground as Scripture to have any meaningful basis for calling them “apostolic.”
In light of this discussion and my many debates in defense of sola scriptura, I would very much like to find out if Mr. MacKenzie is, in fact, accusing me of holding to solo scriptura and, if he is, would love to ask him to substantiate his accusation in light of my own writings.