In the previous installment of this series I provided an introduction and the comments I made in The Roman Catholic Controversy regarding the use of Matthew 23:1-3 by Roman Catholic apologists. Let’s make sure we understand what is required of the Roman Catholic apologist in order to substantiate their claims. First, there needs to be an identifiable oral tradition regarding “Moses’ Seat” that is passed down outside of Scripture. This tradition must grant to the scribes and Pharisees some kind of authority that is not given in Scripture itself, and Jesus must be making reference to this tradition, and the resultant authority, and binding His followers thereto. Is that what is going on in Matthew 23? Let’s see if Dave Armstrong can provide a positive defense or, will he do what most of the rest of his compatriots do: hope that an attack upon the text will be sufficient to confuse their followers into thinking they have actually provided a meaningful defense of their claims. Armstrong begins:
Jesus teaches that the scribes and Pharisees have a legitimate, binding authority, based on Moses’ seat, which phrase (or idea) cannot be found anywhere in the Old Testament. It is found in the (originally oral) Mishna, where a sort of teaching succession from Moses on down is taught. Thus, apostolic succession, whereby the Catholic Church, in its priests and bishops and popes, claims to be merely the custodian of an inherited apostolic Tradition, is also prefigured by Jewish oral tradition, as approved (at least partially) by Jesus himself.
So we see that Armstrong takes “the whole enchilada,” so to speak, and sets the highest bar possible, even “prefiguring” Roman apostolic Tradition in the Jewish form, though, he seems to allow a small out for himself with the parenthetic statement, “at least partially.” It is hard to know what this refers to at this point.
Following these claims Armstrong lists five “anomalous facts” for Protestants, other passages he believes likewise refer to “extrabiblical and oral tradition acknowledged by the New Testament writers.” These include 1 Cor. 10:4 and the rock that followed Israel in the wilderness; 1 Pet. 3:19, where Armstrong assumes the passage is drawing from 1 Enoch, together with Jude 14_15 and the citation of 1 Enoch 1:9; Jude 9 and the dispute between Michael and Satan over Moses’ body; 2 Tim. 3:8 and the naming of Jannes and Jambres; James 5:17 and the information that the drought had lasted for three years. He concludes his list with these words:
Since Jesus and the Apostles acknowledge authoritative Jewish oral tradition (in so doing, raising some of it literally to the level of written revelation), we are hardly at liberty to assert that it is altogether illegitimate. Jesus attacked corrupt traditions only, not tradition per se, and not all oral tradition. According to a strict sola Scriptura viewpoint, this would be inadmissible, it seems to me.
Immediately the careful reader will note that there seems to be no difference at all in Armstrong’s thinking between “authoritative Jewish oral tradition,” non-authoritative Jewish oral tradition, and any historical story, whether oral or written. Likewise, he leaves untouched the issues relating to the citation of Enoch, for surely he knows Enoch as a whole is not canonical, hence, is he actually insisting that only a portion of Enoch contains some kind of authoritative, inspired material? All of these passages have sparked a great deal of discussion in both Protestant and Catholic biblical scholarship, but none of that discussion is referenced here. An allegedly “straightforward” reading is all that is noted.
Armstrong moves from here to the specifics of his response to the material in The Roman Catholic Controversy by stating, “I shall quote the heart of his subtle but thoroughly fallacious argument.” He cites the very beginning of the comments, to the point where I note that there is no way to trace this alleged tradition back to Moses, since this refers to an element of synagogue worship that did not come into existence until only a few hundred years prior to the time of Christ. He then writes,
White agrees that the notion is not found in the Old Testament, but maintains that it cannot be traced back to Moses. Yet the Catholic argument here does not rest on whether it can be traced historically to Moses, but on the act that it is not found in the Old Testament. Thus, White concedes a fundamental point of the Catholic argument concerning authority and sola Scriptura.
While I wish to wait to respond to the full argumentation until after outlining Armstrong’s response, I must point out in passing that “admitting” that Jesus is making reference to a concept that developed during the intertestamental period is hardly relevant to sola scriptura nor is it a concession to a “fundamental point of the Catholic argument.” There is nothing in sola scriptura that requires the NT to be silent about developments during the intertestamental period. There is nothing in the doctrine that requires the Bible to remain silent on the form of synagogue worship. This is simply wishful thinking on Armstrong’s part, once again. Further, unless I misread Armstrong, he saw a “prefigurement” of the Roman position in the Jewish one regarding tradition; yet, the Jews claimed their traditions did, in fact, go back to Moses, and yet here it seems Armstrong is admitting that the Jews could be wrong about the very origin of their traditions, and yet Jesus would still find the tradition binding. Does it follow that Rome could admit her traditions do not go back to the Apostles but they are still binding? We are not told.
Next we encounter the following paragraph:
White then cites Protestant Bible scholar Robert Gundry in agreement, to the effect that Jesus was binding Christians to the Pharisaical law, but not “their interpretive traditions.” This passage concerned only “the law itself,” with the “antinomians” in mind. How Gundry arrives at such a conclusion remains to be seen. White’s query about the Catholic interpretation, “Is this sound exegesis?” can just as easily be applied to Gundry’s fine-tuned distinctions that help him avoid any implication of a binding extrabiblical tradition.
One will note that this is at best a partial accounting of the views I noted; but beyond this, there is no meaningful interaction with Gundry’s exegesis. And given that I have worked through a number of attempted arguments made by Armstrong in this book, I believe I can say with some foundation that I do not believe Dave Armstrong understands what he would have to do to provide an exegetical response to Gundry or myself or anyone else. He simply does not understand the field. Writing “Is this sound exegesis?” and then in essence saying, “Well, you too!” is a poor substitute for meaningful exegetical interaction, that’s for certain. [continued]