Dave Armstrong “shows his cards” so to speak, and in so doing reveals the true motivation behind his use of Matthew 23, in these words:
Thirdly, because they had the authority and no indication is given that Jesus thought they had it only when simply reading Scripture, it would follow that Christians were, therefore, bound to elements of Pharisaical teaching that were not only nonscriptural, but based on oral tradition, for this is what the Pharisees believed. (p. 49)
Here we see the full impact of Armstrong’s reading, and, I believe, misreading of the entire opening to Matthew 23. The full power of sola ecclesia is here seen, for when you can turn the opening phrases of condemnation of the Pharisees for their hypocrisy into a binding of believers to Pharisaical traditions that are explicitly condemned therein, you are obviously operating with a very, very strong external authority. This is the central assertion, in my opinion, and hence will be the primary focus of my response (which, to the shock of some, I will, eventually, get to).
Next, Armstrong makes the interesting observation that the Pharisees did indeed have their “traditions” that were extra-biblical, and since he is seeking to present as positive a picture of the Pharisees as possible, he identifies the Sadducees as the “Jewish sola Scripturists and liberals of the time,” an odd combination when one thinks about it.
In support of what he realizes is, in fact, his central assertion (the third point just noted), Armstrong seeks to establish more positive connections to Pharisaism (in reference to a passage that begins the longest denunciation of them in all of Scripture–don’t let that irony pass) by asserting that “it was precisely the extrabiblical (especially apocalyptic) elements of Pharisaical Judaism that New Testament Christianity adopted and developed for its own—doctrines such as resurrection, the soul, the afterlife, eternal reward or damnation, and angelology and demonology (all of which the Sadducees rejected).” Immediately the reader is probably surprised to discover that Christian beliefs in these areas are actually found in the traditions of the Pharisees (it is hard to refrain from refuting this directly from the previous chapter, but I shall do so for the moment) rather than from the Scriptures themselves, let alone from the very traditions Jesus condemned so thoroughly (remember, we have only a few examples of explicit Pharisaical traditions on the lips of Jesus, but the Corban rule is one of them, and remember the Lord’s view of such things).
Armstrong’s next point is to continue seeking to prop up the Pharisees as a group, pointing out that Paul respected Ananias in Acts 23:1-5, and that Paul said he was a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees” (Acts 23:6). I believe the reader can judge for himself the relevance to the point at hand.
Next he misunderstands the reason why I cited the incident in Nehemiah 8, assumes I am trying to draw a parallel to the Pharisees and Moses’ seat (I was simply pointing out the centrality of the Word of God in worship, revival, and its reading in the gatherings of God’s people) and can’t help but include yet another unfounded “swipe” by writing, “He (White) conveniently neglects to mention, however, that Ezra’s Levite assistants, as recorded in the next two verses after the Evangelical-sounding Amens, “helped the people to understand the law” (8:7) and “gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading” (8:8).” (p. 51). Of course, I could respond that it is Mr. Armstrong who “conveniently neglects to mention” that such an observation is utterly irrelevant to either my use of the text, nor my understanding of Scriptural sufficiency. The fact that instruction was offered is perfectly in line with what I do as an elder in the church every Lord’s Day; further, to be relevant to Armstrong’s position, this instruction would have to include the binding of extra-biblical traditions upon the people, which, of course, is not what the text says. Gratuitous swipes at a person’s character and honesty based upon ignorance of that person’s beliefs are one element of reading “apologetic” literature that I find very distasteful.
Next we have an odd, brief explosion of a complete straw-man argument:
One does not find in the Old Testament individual Hebrews questioning teaching authority. Sola Scriptura simply is not there. No matter how hard White and other Protestants try to read it into the Old Testament, it cannot be done.
For some, this is a form of argument, but for most, it is little more than another “confession of faith.” What teaching authority did individual Hebrews not question? The OT Papacy? The Vatican in Jerusalem? We aren’t told. It is ironic indeed, in a passage where Jesus instructs His disciples and the crowds to examine the teachings and actions of the Pharisees, discern right from wrong, and not follow them into false behavior, that Armstrong can find in this passage a basis for such rhetoric.
Armstrong ends his presentation with two more main points. First, he draws from his own anecdotal experience as a Protestant to assert that “individual Christians” have the right and duty to rebuke their pastors for “unbiblical” teaching. I find it odd that Roman Catholics will lionize those who stood up to the corrupt Papacy in the past, and then turn around and demonize a non-Catholic who would seek biblical fidelity from his or her leaders. Be that as it may, yes, every member of Christ’s body has the duty to believe the truth, and, if there is trouble in the camp, so to speak, to bring his or her concerns to the elders (note Armstrong doesn’t seem to understand the plurality of elders polity position). He relates a bad experience he had in what sounds like a single-pastor situation, not realizing that in the biblical model the local church is not under the control of a despot, but under the direction of a group of men who fit the qualifications laid out in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. This changes the dynamic greatly, for instead of a one-on-one “power struggle” you have one of the sheep bringing a concern which may be valid, or may be based upon ignorance or misunderstanding, to a group of men, not just a single person.
Secondly, Armstrong quotes from Kim Riddlebarger who likewise sees the source of the proclamation to which Jesus enjoins obedience to be the Old Testament, not the oral traditions of the Pharisees, and thinking somehow that this conflicts with my own position, writes, “White’s and Riddlerbarger’s positions here mutually exclude each other. Such confusion is one of the hallmarks of an incoherent, weakly supported position” (pp. 52-53). No, Armstrong’s misunderstanding of both creates a contradiction, that is true, but that does not mean the two positions are actually saying anything contradictory at all.
So, with all of that said (probably took me more room to review/summarize his position than he spent in the book itself!), I move to my response, and I promise to keep it as brief as possible. I could not resist the temptation to respond a bit as we were going along, but I wish to outline a response to the entire argument that should be useful to anyone encountering the use of Matthew 23 by Roman Catholic apologists. I shall do so in our next, and possibly final, installment.