Wednesday, September 05, 2007

“Words mean things…” I’ve heard one of my favorite teachers repeat this phrase for at least the last fifteen years of my life. Now, I don’t know if it is original to him or if like all great thinkers, he stole it. But either way God has used Rush Limbaugh in my life to drive this point home. It is so simple…even a child can understand it.

What does this have to do with anything? The reason I mention this is because at the core of the “Sola Scriptura” debate lies the question, “can I understand the words in the Bible?” Or, who can interpret the Scriptures?

Groups such as Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Mormonism and The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society all proclaim that they and only they can rightly interpret the Bible. They all point to “30,000” “denominations” within the general Reformed tradition as proof that Sola Scriptura is manifestly incorrect. Each group boasts of their unity in proclaiming the exact same message as every other congregation in their group…and they accuse those of us in the Reformed tradition as “all” preaching “totally different” things. This is probably the one thing all four of those groups say in unison. It’s kinda creepy actually.

This particular argument is simply absurd and unfair. First of all…every group within the larger Reformed tradition (either basically or whole heartedly) affirms, together, the first four ecumenical councils of the Church. So, please…stop with the dramatic lingo. We all furthermore proclaim the doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone. Any group who denies any of the first four ecumenical councils or the basic Reformed doctrine of justification is disqualified and does not count…to us at least. Of course any screw ball can start a "church" which denies those things...but that does not mean the greater Reformed traditions embrace them as brothers. Secondly, those statistics are drastically inflated…I won’t take the time to document it for this particular post, but please understand, whoever came up with those types of number count each and every “non-denominational” local church…as a denomination! So as my wife says to me when I'm being absurd... "whatever".

Back to the point. By means of introduction let me remind us all…every one of you reading this…that we are all fallible. Period. My choice to trust the doctrine of Sola Scriptura is just as fallible as your choice to deny it. Chew on that. That’s the first thing I want to point out. Secondly, denying Sola Scriptura does not remove the problem of a fallen sinner interpreting and processing the “information of God”. All inserting your “church” or “group” into the ultimate mix does is bump the entry point of interpretation up a knotch. Because now it’s up to you to rightly understand and interpret the interpretation. So now you’ve got the chore of studying the context, meaning of the words and intent of early Church fathers…or of the “faithful and discreet slave” or whoever…but who exactly are you to think you can do that? You may say, “well, my priest or prophet or guru will interpret the interpretation of the Bible for me…” and so the entry point gets bumped up another notch. So now you have the chore of understanding the context, words and intent of your guru as he tells you about the context, words and intent of the early Church father or the faithful and discreet slave…who then is interpreting the words, context and intent of, say, Paul or Moses.

I hate to burst your bubble…but…that’s nonsense. What is implied is that a guru or a pope, priest or Church father is able to do something that God Almighty is not able to do…to speak plainly and communicate clearly with a sinner.

So before I dive into the merits of Sola Scriptura let’s get one thing straight…at the end of the day…words mean things…and God has given man the ability to understand words and language for a reason. It’s because He desires to “make contact” and communicate with us. I’m just naïve enough to believe that He did it right the first time…when He inspired the Scriptures. And I believe God uses all the sources of truth to assist us in doing that…ALL of them…experience, science and Tradition…more on that next time.

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 niv


Anonymous said...

so, why did not God tell us to look at our experiences, traditions, and science. All of those things will pass away, but His Word will never pass away. Just a thought.

irreverend fox said...

good question anonymous...I believe God has instructed us to value all of those things...
I'd suggest you read my last several posts regarding those issues...

also...I totally...TOTALLY...disagree with your assertion that those three things will pass away. I don't believe that for a second.

Zac said...

Dear Gary,

This is a very good post, in that it highlights one of the key differences between Evangelical and Orthodox theologies. I am not certain that I am remotely up to the challenge of addressing your concerns, but will attempt to do so anyway.

Let me first of all say that I think you are one of the most circumspect reformed Christians I have met, and your ability to see to the heart of an argument to its core is what makes me pause to think and to pray about how I should answer. For that, let me just say thank you, since it helps me to think more clearly concerning all of these things.

For clarity I will try to divide my answer into sections, addressing your poignant subjects in reversed order.

Concerning Interpretations and Understandability
Perhaps I deserve this criticism and not Orthodoxy, since I probably was not clear about what I meant when it comes to the Orthodox understanding of the Scriptures. For that, I apologize.

Let me start clarifying by saying that we agree with one another that the Scriptures are able to be understood and correctly interpreted. I certainly never wished to express the idea that somehow the Bible was a closed book without some authoritative voice telling us the exact meaning.

But if we have the ability to understand the Scriptures, it also stands to reason that so also could the Christians who came before us. So one of the dilemmas with sola scriptura is this question: what do I do when my own common sense reading of the text is contradicted by 20 centuries of seemly unanimous and uninterrupted belief that a certain passage of holy Scripture means something entirely different?

In other words, the question that sola scriptura can't answer for me is when I am correct and when I am not, and this is due in part to the fact that Scripture does not itself explain how it is to be interpreted.

So what do I do when the meaning of a passage seems obvious to me and yet I can find not a single Christian who agrees with me before the 16th Century?

These are the issues that I find sola scriptura cannot satisfactorily answer. 30,000 denominations aside (maybe you're right about this inflated number-- I haven't checked), I think the point is still valid: Sola Scriptura does not breed unity, as the last 500 years and vast multitude of sola scriptura denominations demonstrates. But again, the point is not that the Scriptures cannot be understood, but that they can also be misunderstood. And if so, then how do we know when we are in the right?

2) Guilt by association! I cannot help noticing that for a second time you have grouped Orthodoxy with cults like the Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons. Perhaps this is simply for the sake of broadly addressing your message, which is fine. Conversely, I might argue that these groups have much more in common with evangelicalism, since all of them reject the historical Christian tradition to varying degrees, and work from a sola scriptura/western scholastic paradigm, which Orthodoxy does not share with them. However, I will not do this because it steps over the line of cogent argumentation into the rhetorical fallacy of guilt by association, since this does not prove or disprove the validity of sola scriptura, and might unfairly prejudice a reader against an otherwise correct position.

3) Question about the Ecumenical Councils I am not so sure that a majority of evangelicals would agree with you that they all hold in common the teachings of the first four ecumenical councils. Have you studied the ecumenical councils? These were assemblies of Orthodox bishops a decidedly Orthodox point of view.

I would like to go deeper into this when I get some time, and will do so if you ask me, but I do not think you would agree or even be able to apply the canonical or full dogmatic tradition of even the first four ecumenical councils to Evangelicalism. This is not your fault-- I'm simply trying to say that they were written in an entirely different context.

I will give you one example from both the dogmatic and canonical proclamations of the councils which will help you understand what I mean:

Dogmatics-- The Third Ecumenical Council (Ephesus, A.D. 431): This council convened in order to defend the unity of Christ's person from Nestorius. To do so, they also upheld and defended the ancient Christian practice of calling the Virgin Mary the "Theotokos" (paraphrased, "Mother of God). I do not know of many evangelicals who call the Virgin by this title, or even know what nestorianism was, or why it was considered heretical by the bishops assembled in Ephesus.

Canonical: Even the canonical tradition from the time of the First Ecumenical Council is foreign to an evangelical understanding of Christian doctrine. This first ecumenical council in Nicea held such teachings as baptism for the remission of sins (see the actual Creed: "I believe in one baptism for the remission of sins..."), ordination of bishops, priests, and deacons, administering the Mysteries—etc (see the first few canons which make mention of these). Canon 6 bears witness to the ancient system of patriarchates: "Let the ancient customs be maintained in Egypt, in Libya, and in the Pentapolis so that the bishop of Alexandria has authority over all these territories, since for the bishop of Rome there is a similar practice and the same thing concerning Antioch; and in other provinces, let the prerogatives of the churches (of the capitals) be safeguarded." Canon 7 establishes the bishop of "Aelia" (roman name for Jerusalem) as the fourth patriarchate. At least for myself as an evangelical, I could not understand what any of these meant.

I won't belabor the point-- suffice it to say that I would love for you to study the first four ecumenical councils! Then perhaps we could continue our dialog along those lines. I think, however, that you will be greatly surprised at what you find.

That's all I've got for now. Thanks for the well-reasoned dialog!

irreverend fox said...

zac...thank you for your response!

#1. I'll be dealing with this more hopefully today...

#2. I certainly do not mean to lump Eastern Orthodoxy in with those groups in any other category...I certainly do not believe EO is any sort of "cult". But the truth is the truth and all four groups do deny Sola Scriptura as has been passed down in the Reformed tradition. That is perhaps the only thing all four groups hold in common. And your assessment about the commonalities of my tradition with the remaining three of that group are also correct.

#3. I should have been more clear and precise. While, unfortunately, "Average Joe" sitting in the pew, so to speak, may not commonly refer to Mary as Mother of God...our scholars cautiously do. Reformed theologian RC Sproul has a great teaching regarding this issue. Logic, ultimately, demands that we the same context and in the same way as was originally intended...that Mary was/is the Mother of God. Christ was/is one whole person...Mary could not have simply been the mother of His humanity...because that splits Him into parts.

Indeed...our scholars do hold to the first four councils of the early Church...even though Average Joe Evangelical might not understand that...heck…Average Joe Evangelical has rarely even heard of such councils let alone understand what any of them dealt with…and he might even deny it some of the technicalities...if he does so it is simply due to a lack of education...because logic DEMANDS that we endorse the first four.

Again, I should have been more clear…because like you said…I don’t hear Mary referred to as Mother of God…EVER…in the hallways of any church I have ever walked in…but that does not mean that our scholars do sheepishly (for the most part, myself included) acknowledge that title unique to Mary.

derek said...

yeah what zack said

irreverend fox said...

derek...thank you for taking the time to bless us all!