Apolonio Latar’s article on sola scriptura was cited on the Catholic Answers web board recently, so I thought I would, once again, go over ground that has been covered many, many times. However, in light of the fact that most Roman Catholics are unwilling to read, at least in print, the responses to their own position, it is incumbant upon us to repeat the truth as often as necessary. Therefore, we read from Mr. Latar’s keyboard these words:
Mr. White has admitted in his debate with Gerry Matatics on Sola Scriptura that Jesus, the apostles, and the Christians before John’s (the last apostle) death did not practice Sola Scriptura. Mr. White says that “its normative function only after the canon is completed.” To be fair, when Mr. White speaks of the canon being completed, he does not mean when the Church compiled the Scriptures. By the canon being completed, as I understand it, he means when the last scripture was written and the last apostle died, since it would mean that revelation ceased. This is what it seems like he was saying in his debate with Gerry Matatics and that is what he has tried to defend.
This is the section of the debate that Mr. Latar has posted on the web…a tiny little clip that is touted by many as some great “admission” on my part. To the serious minded reader, it is obvious that there is no “admission” when you are simply operating on a standard definition of the issue under debate, in this case, sola scriptura. I refer to the fact that sola scriptura has both epistemological concerns as well as ecclesiological: not only does it refer to the nature of Scripture and its God intended function, but it likewise is a church doctrine. It refers to the sole infallible rule of faith for the church, hence, it speaks to the normative state of the church today and in the past. Since the doctrine says that it is that which is inspired, the Word, that is the sole infallible rule of faith, the issue of inspiration itself obviously touches upon the topic.
Roman Catholics and Protestants historically have agreed on the reality that special revelation itself has ceased. We agree that new Scripture is not being written. Since this is so, logically, that means we agree there was a time, a miraculous and special time, often referred to as that period of “enscripturation,” when that process was taking place, so that the Scriptures themselves were coming into existence under the providential direction of God Himself, for His purposes. Roman Catholic apologists often make reference to these periods when the Word of God was orally preached, such as in the ministry of Isaiah, as evidence of the falsehood of sola scriptura. And yet, given that they agree we no longer live in that context, is it not obvious and clear that the question of what is in fact an infallible authority today differs from asking the same question during periods of enscripturation? What true use is there to say “Isaiah said more than what we have in the book of Isaiah” when 1) no one today is speaking on that level of inspiration and 2) Rome, which claims access to, and authority over, “tradition” has never given us a single word Isaiah said that is not itself found in Scripture?
So, to debate sola scriptura in 1997 (the debate date of the video clip Mr. Latar refers to) is to ask the question, “Today, as we stand here, do we have a sure word from God? Do we have access to that which is theopneustos today? Do we have a single, knowable, infallible source of authority, or do we have a pluriform authority?” The question must be asked, and answered, within the context we are now in, and my response to Mr. Matatics’ question was nothing more than a recognition of the fact that sola scriptura recognizes this basic, and ironically, shared conviction that we no longer live in an age of special revelation. So how is this an “admission” of anything more than the basic definition of the topic under discussion? And does this not mean that anyone who thinks it some great “admission” is only demonstrating that in fact they simply do not understand (or, in Mr. Matatics’ case, are using improper and misleading forms of argumentation) the topic at hand? Such would seem to be the case.
Mr. Latar continues:
My response to this is the verse which seems to contradict sola scriptura itself. We read from 2 Thess 2:15:
“Therefore, brothers. stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught, either by an oral statement or by a letter of ours.”
This is a rebutting defeater for sola scriptura.
Allow me to offer here my comments on this passage from The Roman Catholic Controversy, once again contrasting the methodology of so many of Rome’s apologists with those on the other side (at least those on the other side who still believe the Word is clear and useful for such things):
The most common passage cited against the doctrine of sola scriptura and in support of the Roman position is 2 Thessalonians 2:15. Let’s look at the preceding verses as well to get the context:
But we should always give thanks to God for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth. It was for this He called you through our gospel, that you may gain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us.
Verse 15 carries the key terms. Paul speaks of “the traditions” that were passed on in one of two ways: by letter from us (i.e., 1 Thessalonians), or “by word of mouth” as the NASB puts it, that is, orally, by teaching. The most common use of the verse goes like this: “Here you have a positive command to hold to both the written tradition, which is Scripture, and the oral tradition as well. Protestants hold to the one, but not the other. Only Roman Catholics do both.” The underlying assumption, however, is that this “oral tradition” is somehow different or separate from the written tradition. But is this the case? Does an honest look at the context of the passage support this use by Rome?
The first thing we note is that this is a command to stand firm and hold fast to a single body of traditions already delivered to the believers. There is nothing future about this passage at all. Does Paul say to stand firm and hold fast to traditions that will be delivered? Does he say to hold on to interpretations and understandings that have not yet developed? No, this oral teaching to which he refers has already been delivered to the entire church, not just the episcopate, not just the bishops, but to everyone in the church at Thessalonica.
This single body of traditions was taught in two ways. First, orally, that is, when Paul was personally with the Thessalonians, and then by epistle, that being the first letter of Paul to the Thessalonians. Now, what does the term “orally” refer to? We first note that the context of the passage is the Gospel. The verses which immediately precede verse 15 speak of the Gospel and its work amongst the Thessalonians. The traditions of which Paul speaks are not traditions about Mary or papal infallibility. Instead, the traditions to which Paul refers have to do with a single topic, a single subject, one that is close to his heart. He is encouraging these believers to stand firm—in what? In oral traditions about subjects not to be found in the New Testament? No, he is exhorting them to stand firm in the Gospel. Note what Paul had said to them in 1 Thessalonians concerning what he had orally preached to them: “For this reason we also constantly thank God that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe.”
But we have further evidence that Paul is here speaking of the Gospel, not of some separate oral tradition that exists outside of Scripture. When Paul exhorts the believers to “stand firm,” he does so using a term that is found elsewhere in his writings. For example, we read in 1 Corinthians 16:13, “Be on the alert, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong” (emphasis mine). The phrase “stand firm” comes from the same Greek term Paul uses in 2 Thessalonians 2:15. And in what does he exhort the Corinthians to “stand firm” in, but “the faith,” that is, the faith that he himself has delivered to them. And who can possibly claim that the faith is not found, not just implicitly, but explicitly, in Scripture? And what defines “the faith” for Paul but the phrase, “the Gospel of Jesus Christ”? It is needless to say that there is nothing in this passage in its own context that is supportive of either of the Roman positions regarding tradition.
But are there not other references to “tradition” in the Bible? Yes, there are. For example, Paul wrote to the Corinthians:
For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread; (1 Corinthians 11:23)
The phrase “delivered to you” speaks of the passing on of a tradition, in this case, the very words of the Lord Jesus regarding the Supper. But this provides little help for the specific and unique claims put forward by Rome, as this “tradition” is obviously recorded for us in Scripture. While it does illustrate the reality that, for a time, the early Christians were dependent upon the transmission of this information in an oral manner, it does not logically follow that it was God’s intention for Christians to always remain dependent in this way. Nor does it provide support for the idea that Paul taught the Christians things that, while important for salvation and proper belief, are nowhere recorded for us in Scripture. Instead, we find passages that indicate a harmony and identity between the preaching of the Apostles and their written epistles and gospels. For example, note Paul’s words to the Thessalonians:
Do you not remember that while I was still with you, I was telling you these things? (2 Thessalonians 2:5)
Often the Apostles indicate that they are repeating, in written form, what they taught when in person. Peter likewise reminded his readers in 2 Peter 1:12-15 that it was good for him to remind them of some of the basic truths of the gospel, since we all need to go back over such things from time to time. (The Roman Catholic Controversy, pp. 95-98.)
As we will note, Mr. Latar will later say that the Roman Catholic Church does not believe in partim/partim (an amazing statement to make from a historical perspective, as it is clear, beyond all question, that this was, in fact, the majority view for centuries). So, the problem is that this passage is only relevant to the defense of that position, in reality, given the exegetical issues and the language involved. But to be honest, I cannot make consistent heads or tails out of what he says about this, but will do my best to interact with it anyway.
We know that when St. Paul was talking about oral traditions in that passage, he is talking about an oral tradition that is the word of God. St. Paul writes in 1 Thess 2:13, “When you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.” I don’t think Mr. White nor any Protestant would dispute that the “oral tradition” St. Paul was talking about was not the word of God.
As the passage indicates, what Paul delivered was the Word of God: he delivered it to all the Thessalonians, so, clearly, we are talking about his teaching regarding the gospel, which, in fact, we have full and sufficient knowledge of due to the work of the Spirit in giving us Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, etc. But to take this viewpoint makes the passage irrelevant as a “refutation” of sola scriptura, does it not? Secondly, Paul does not refer to an “oral tradition.” He refers to preaching. Does Rome dogmatically define for us a single word the Apostle Paul said to the Thessalonians that is not found in Scripture? When I asked Father Mitchell Pacwa this question, he said he knows of no such definitions. Does Mr. Latar? If not, why even raise the issue?
Their interpretation of this passage is that the “oral traditions” St. Paul was talking about is not something that is “extra-biblical.” Now, if by “extra-biblical,” Mr. White means something that cannot be complementary to scripture or can be known apart from scripture, as if “oral tradition” is another source of revelation itself, then I too believe that this passage is not talking about that which is “extra-biblical.”
I am uncertain what Mr. Latar means by “that cannot be complementary to scripture.” Does he mean complementary in the sense of equal in authority? I am unsure. In any case, he clearly states, properly that what Paul refers to is clearly not “another source of revelation.” This is quite true. And by taking this view, I suggest the relevance of the passage as a “refuter” of sola scriptura is rendered moot. But we continue…
The Catholic Church does not believe in partim/partim. It is true that there were debates at the Council of Trent about the nature of Tradition. Cardinal del Monte on February 12, 1546 did try to push forth the partim/partim theory, but that was dropped on April 8.
This is an interesting “read” on Trent. It almost seems as if Mr. Latar is suggesting (he may not be, I’m just suggesting a certain reading) that the partim/partim view was novel or new. Surely he must know that it was not only the majority view at the time, but would remain a very, very strong element in Roman thinking all the way to the modern period. It was hardly novel, and in reality, the removal of the language was to please a minority, not a majority. So if all Mr. Latar is saying is “partim/partim is not the dogmatically defined position” then he is absolutely correct. But I would like to suggest that the partim/partim position is likewise the only consistent way of interpreting Rome’s use of tradition over the years, though it is surely indefensible on a historical level. This, I believe, is one of the great failures of modern Roman Catholic apologetics: recognizing that Rome has used one view of tradition to create her dogmatic theology, but then being willing only to defend a much weaker view in the apologetic battle.
Rather than teaching that the Gospel comes through partly scripture and partly tradition, the Council taught that the Gospel comes through scripture and tradition.
The gospel only? Or all divine truths? What about all those things Rome has defined on the basis of her tradition, especially the Papal and Marian dogmas of the past few centuries? Is Mr. Latar going to be willing to defend the idea that Paul taught these things to the Thessalonians? If not, what is the relevance of the passage?
Vatican 2 also did not teach partim/partim, but rather taught that there is one source, the Word of God, with two transmissions: “Sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God, committed to the Church” (Dei Verbum 10) and “that sacred tradition, Sacred Scripture and the teaching authority of the Church, in accord with God’s most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others, and that all together and each in its own way under the action of the one Holy Spirit contribute effectively to the salvation of souls” (ibid.). The Church never magisterially taught partim/partim and therefore we do not believe that when St. Paul speaks of “oral traditions,” he is not speaking of another source of the Gospel.
I wonder if Mr. Latar is stating that one cannot believe in partim/partim? It almost sounds that way. In any case, I again ask why he limits his discussion to “the gospel” rather than the much wider consideration of all the uses of tradition Rome has claimed in her long history?
What the passage does speak about is how there is another infallible rule of faith. 2 Thess 2:15 is speaking of two infallible rules of faith: written and unwritten traditions. This is a defeater against sola scriptura because sola scriptura is a doctrine that says that there is only one infallible rule of faith, which is scripture.
Now here we see a major shift in argumentation that will require substantiation far beyond anything Mr. Latar can offer. Paul is speaking of how the gospel has been delivered to the Thessalonians: it was delivered to them in two ways, and they are to stand firm therein. Does Mr. Latar know just how much is required to move from this exegetical platform to the idea that Paul is talking about infallible rules of faith, and that the second of these alleged rules of faith is identical with modern Rome’s theories? If he is aware of what is required to substantiate such a major assertion, he does not give evidence of it here, for he does not in fact offer such argumentation. Further, it seems that Mr. Latar’s argumentation has already undercut his assertions. If this oral tradition is not, in fact, distinguishable in substance from the Scriptures, how can it function as a rule of faith? It is just here that Mr. Latar is going to be left in the utterly untenable position of having to assert that Rome could tell us what tradition is with specificity but just doesn’t choose to do so. We will respond to that below, but for now, how can a non-defined, non-parallel reference to the oral proclamation of the gospel to the Thessalonians amount to a equal, parallel infallible rule of faith? This assertion is left hanging in the air, dependent solely upon one’s acceptance of Rome’s ultimate claims of authority, nothing more. [continued]