November 24, 2020

The Council

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Scripture Alone: Defending the Biblical, Logical, and Historical Case for Sola Scriptura

Chris Matthew responded to the critique presented by Jon the Orthodox. So, I’ll post the previous articles in regards to this discussion:

Here is now his addition to the conversation:

Greetings. Are you Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, …? @Jonathyn. Regardless of your profession, permit me to interact with some of your earlier comments. You allege that you “haven’t been corrected” on the issue of Sola Scriptura so I’ll attempt to press some of your errors. First and foremost, you contend:

[Sola Scriptura is] the idea that the only authoritative and infallible source of rules of faith are found in scripture, in scripture alone… but, sola scriptura is self refuting because the rule of faith “sola scriptura” is not found in scripture.

“[F]rom infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is profitable for doctrine, reproof, correcting, and training in righteousness, that the man of God may be perfect, fully equipped for every good work.” ─ 2 Tim. 3:14-17. “Now, brothers and sisters, I have applied these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, so that you may learn from us the meaning of the saying, ‘Do not go beyond what is written.'” ─ 1 Cor. 4:6. Leon Morris (in the Tyndale commentary on the text) claims this saying was “a catch-cry familiar to Paul and his readers.” Sounds very much like the cry of the Protestant Reformation, doesn’t it?

This kind of exhortation is found throughout Scripture. Moses was told, ʺYou shall not add to what I command you nor subtract from itʺ (Deut. 4:2). Solomon reaffirmed this in Proverbs, saying, ʺEvery word of God is tested….Add nothing to his words, lest he reprove you, and you be exposed as a deceiverʺ (Prov. 30:5‐6). Indeed, John closed the last words of the Bible with the same exhortation. And it follows that, if the content inscripturated in the Bible is our only verifiable means of access to the words of the apostles and prophets, then that alone constitutes authoritative normative revelation for believers today. And let’s have one more, the cherry on top. “To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.” ─ Is. 8:20

We can discuss these verses in greater detail, but this is more than sufficient for a brief overview of Scripture’s own testimony to Sola Scriptura. However, I will mention it could even be argued that Sola Scriptura doesn’t need to be explicitly set forth in Scripture. I quote from R.C. Sproul Jr.,

Sola Scriptura is a biblical doctrine not because the Bible says so. That would be a tautology ─ the kind of argument we find in that collection of lies the Book of Mormon. Instead the Bible is our alone final authority because it alone is the Word of God. It has been attested, authenticated, by God Himself. Miracles serve as the divine imprimatur, the proof that this is a message of God. This is how Nicodemus reasoned when he said, “Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him” (John 3:2).

Secondly, you attempt to make a case for your own position from Scripture:

in fact, St Paul instructs believers to believe in the traditions that were taught by word of mouth or by epistle

Plainly put, 2 Thess. 2:15 is a broken argument against Sola Scriptura. In this verse, Paul points to his own firsthand teaching, and not some free-floating paradosis.

The first point of examination is to note that this is a command…to whom? To Christians in general? Did Paul address 1 Thessalonians to 21st-century Christians? No. Did he speak to us personally? No. Was a modern reader in the audience when he spoke? No. Is Paul enjoining us to adhere to the written and oral traditions which he taught us by his spoken word or earlier letter? No, false on both counts. Is Paul enjoining us to follow a 5C bishop of Thessalonica—or 8C bishop of Constantinople, or 18C bishop of Moscow—who claims to be handing down an oral Pauline tradition? No. Since the text never says that, it can’t very well mean what it never said. Rather, the verse is directed to mid-1C members of the church of Thessalonica. It’s not referring to Christians in general. It’s not referring to apostolic succession. It’s not referring to sub-apostolic oral traditions allegedly of Pauline origin. That’s what it says. That’s all it says. It can’t mean more than it says. No contortions. It couldn’t be more straightforward. Indeed, it has an expected expiration date. Paul is telling people who have face-to-face knowledge of his teaching to hold fast to what they heard from his own mouth. You can’t legitimately extrapolate from that to situations far removed from face-to-face knowledge, as if Paul is vouching for traditions in the indefinite future. Furthermore, keep in mind that this occurs in correspondence where Paul warns about forgeries. That’s why he signs his letters. So even at that stage there’s a concern about spurious apostolic traditions.

The Thessalonians should hold to the oral preaching which they heard directly from the lips of Paul himself. It doesn’t extend to allegedly apostolic tradition from some third-hand source (or worse). To the contrary, this very epistle warns the reader to be wary of spurious apostolic communications (2:2; 3:17). That’s the point of 2 Thess 2:15. It’s the polar opposite of a blanket endorsement of allegedly apostolic traditions. Now, of course, there are commands in Scripture which do apply beyond their immediate audience. But there’s no automatic presumption that any or every divine command is binding on all Christians at all times and places. That, rather, depends on the nature of the command, the wording of the command, and/or the context in which it’s given. You’ve taken a verse of Scripture, stripped it of its historical context, and then arbitrarily reapplied it to your denomination of choice. You have more verses up your sleeve, it looks like. Thirdly,

and other verses, where Paul says that the church is the pillar and ground of truth, not scripture

A fundamental problem at hand is quoting the verse out of context. For all its due merits, the pitfall of chapter-and-verse division is that folks can read a particular verse whilst failing to place that verse in the flow of the argument. They don’t consider what comes before or after. In this case, you’re boldly saying, “See, Paul doesn’t say ‘Scripture’ is a pillar of truth, but ‘the Church’ in 1 Tim. 3:15!”. Yet this completely ignores the preceding verse. Paul is directing Timothy to what he wrote. Look at what I just wrote you!

Moreover, he wrote to Timothy so that Timothy would know how to conduct himself in church, based on Paul’s written instructions. If, however, the church is the source of truth, then that’s superfluous. Yet Paul points Timothy to Paul’s explicit, written directives. That’s the benchmark.

We must not and cannot disregard the preceding verse. We need to back up one verse to get the overall thrust: “14 I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, 15 if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God…”

Syntactically, verse 14 refers back to the preceding section (2:1-3:13). But the principle extends to the rest of the letter. Since Paul can’t instruct Timothy and the congregation in person, the letter is a stand-in, which serves that purpose. By Paul’s own admission, his letter takes the place of Paul’s face-to-face teaching. Catholic apologists claim we need a “living voice”, an infallible interpreter. Eastern Orthodox claim the necessity of infallible tradition to duly interpret a nominally ‘prime’ Scripture. Yet the very function of an apostolic letter is to instruct the faithful in the apostle’s absence (cf. 2 Cor 13:10).

It would be insubordinate to say: that’s only a text, so we can’t know what Paul really meant, and that’s why we have apostolic successors like Timothy, to infallibly expound the deposit of faith. Indeed, Paul takes for granted that his written instructions should suffice in his absence. And even if we anachronistically classify Timothy as a bishop, Timothy has no independent authority. Timothy can’t say, by virtue of his “office”, how Christians are supposed to behave in church. That’s based, not on Timothy’s teaching authority, but on Paul’s teaching authority, in written form. Timothy simply transmits what he was taught by Paul. There’s nothing here about the necessity of an infallible teaching office to interpret the deposit of faith, even though Paul is nearing the end of his career. He will soon pass from the scene. He will have to hand off the work to the next Christian generation. Even if Timothy received oral instruction from Paul in the past, the letter is an aid to memory. And if you’re a Roman Catholic, appealing to this verse strikes me as quite amusing since ‘the Church’ would instantly shrink down to the papacy or current pope or so-called ecumenical councils. But, of course, Paul didn’t say anything about the pope or papacy or a episcopal council in 1 Tim 3:15. Notice what Paul doesn’t say. He doesn’t say the papacy is a pillar and foundation of truth. He doesn’t say the Roman episcopate under the Roman pontiff is the pillar and foundation of truth. He doesn’t say church councils ratified by the pope constitute a pillar and foundation of truth.
Timothy was one of his handpicked deputies. Once again, you can’t legitimately extrapolate from that to claimants centuries after the fact. In this verse, there’s no lay/clerical dichotomy. No doubt Paul thought pastors should be guardians of doctrinal truth, but he doesn’t drive a wedge between pastors and laymen in that regard. For sure, most of his letters are addressed to the entire congregation ─ to be read aloud in church. Christians in general are supposed to uphold the Gospel truth. It’s not as if he thinks pastors are supposed to safeguard the truth while laymen are not supposed to safeguard the truth. When Paul says “the church” in 1 Tim 3:15, he’s not excluding the congregation, as if elders and deacons are the church, but the congregation is not. So as a Catholic or Orthodox prooftext, this verse either proves too much or too little.

Consider also the fact that, in Pauline ecclesiology, the church is the people of God. Christians. Hence, Christians have a duty to uphold the truth. This means, for instance, you had mid-1C churches planted by Paul. It was incumbent on individual members comprising the congregation to uphold what Paul taught them. They received the truth from the apostle. Their duty was to remain faithful to what he taught them – or in some cases, his handpicked deputies. Moreover, Paul doesn’t say the church is the source of truth. And he doesn’t say the church has the authority or prerogative to determine the truth. Rather, the church is tasked with the responsibility of upholding the truth. For that matter, “determine” is ambiguous. That can mean “ascertain” or “arbitrate”. Those are two very different concepts. To ascertain is an act of understanding. To arbitrate is an act of authority, to obligate other people. Note how the New Testament doesn’t command blind submission to church leaders. After all, some church leaders were false teachers. The epistles continually warn Christians to be on the lookout for false teachers. That means Christians have to exercise some degree of independent judgment, using the Scriptures as their express standard (Ac. 20:29-32). Did Paul consider “the church” to be infallible? Paul didn’t even regard Pauline churches as infallible. Would he call the church of Corinth a “pillar and foundation of truth”? Would he call the Galatian churches “a pillar and foundation of truth”? Even churches he planted and supervised were prone to moral and doctrinal aberrations. Now, you might reply that God doesn’t protect individual congregations from falling into heresy. But this means that you must add qualifications to 1 Tim 3:15 that are conspicuously absent from the text.
Moving on, you insist:

Paul is clearly talking about an oral tradition. The oral tradition is authoritative, if it wasn’t then everything Jesus and Paul said that Isn’t [sic] recorded in the Bible is not the word of God, which is absurd.

This is an all too common error among Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox apologists. The Protestant never denied the principle of apostolic tradition or oral instruction. It’s just that oral transmission suffers from a high decay rate. Word-of-mouth may be adequate when it comes straight from the mouth of an apostle to the ear of a contemporary (revisit my earlier discussion of 2 Thess. 2:15). But there’s a categorical difference between the viva voce of the Apostles and a “process of living Tradition” (cf. Ratzinger on tradition). Again, it’s very simple: what is not written is more easily polluted. We find an example of this in the New Testament. There was an unwritten ʺapostolic traditionʺ (i.e., one coming from the apostles) based on a misunderstanding of what Jesus said. They wrongly assumed that Jesus affirmed that the apostle John would not die. John, however, debunked this false tradition in his authoritative written record (Jn. 21:22‐23).

Now, presumably, both of us concur that the New Testament is the only infallible record of apostolic teaching we have from the first century. If so, well and good ─ for the argument for Sola Scriptura follows naturally. For even many early fathers testified to the fact that all apostolic teaching was put in the New Testament. While acknowledging the existence of apostolic tradition, the church historian J.N.D. Kelly concluded that ʺadmittedly there is no evidence for beliefs or practices current in the period which were not vouched for in the books later known as the New Testament.ʺ Indeed, many early fathers, including Athanasius, Cyril of Jerusalem, Chrysostom, and Augustine believed that the Bible was the only infallible basis for all Christian doctrine (see below). Further, if the New Testament is the only infallible record of apostolic teaching, then every other record from the first century is fallible. If you’re a Catholic, it matters not that you believe the teaching Magisterium later claims to pronounce some extrabiblical tradition as infallibly true. The fact is that you do not have an infallible record from the first century on which to base such a decision.
And since we’ve decided to dive into the words of Jesus, I’ll mention how Jesus and the New Testament writers used the phrase ʺIt is writtenʺ (cf. Matt. 4:4, 7, 10) over 90 times, stressing the importance of the written word of God. When Jesus rebuked the Jewish leaders it was not because they did not follow the traditions (which they believed came from Moses) but because they did not ʺunderstand the Scripturesʺ (Matt. 22:29). All of this makes it clear that God intended from the very beginning that His revelation be preserved in Scripture, not in extrabiblical tradition. To claim that the apostles did not write down all Godʹs revelation to them is to claim that they were not obedient to their prophetic commission not to subtract a word from what God revealed to them. What about the argument preferred by so many Catholic and EO apologists? The dreaded argument from the canon of Scripture? You say,

without the tradition and the early church, one cannot know the true canon of scripture.

This statement is riddled with multiple errors. Now, it ought to be clear that I agree with you that the early church was involved in the canon of Scripture, namely, by recognising God’s word. But this does not, in the slightest, prove the existence of an infallible set of traditions or an infallible Church. When you say the “canon is established by the church”, this lands us in muddy waters. God inspired and established the canon. If you’re a Catholic, consider how Vatican II and even Vatican I affirms God’s determination of the canon. For sure, the Bible is God’s Word! The canon, then, cannot be said to be established by the church in any epistemically significant sense. The church merely discovered which books God had determined (inspired) to be in the canon. If you want to claim the church is providentially ensured infallibility in deciding Scripture, why can we not cut out the middle-man by claiming God ensures Scripture carries its own power to secure recognition? Imagine a man who points his flashlight in order to find the sun. That would be utterly backwards. It’s because of the sun that man has the concept of light, experience of it, and a lit world in which to build flashlights. So it is with Scripture. Pointing to Scripture depends on the autopistic power of Scripture to justify itself.
Furthermore, if this was a convincing argument at all, it serves to prove too much. If you’re Orthodox, show me exactly where the canon of infallible tradition lies. Or if you’re Roman Catholic, where is the comprehensive list of infallible papal or conciliar statements? The argument implodes upon itself since we do not have an infallible canon of the church. And we do not have an infallible interpreter of that canon or of the church itself. And we do not have an infallible interpreter for infallible interpreters. So on the infinite regress goes. It is entirely arbitrary to plant your flag in the church-plus-Scripture rather than the inscripturated revelation of God. If God’s revelation is insufficient, it will be for a reason that in principle renders the church just as insufficient. Furthermore, my position that God providentially guided the church in coming to recognise his self-sufficient Word has strong intertestamental precedent. This is a crucial argument so I ask you to consider this carefully. For I believe that, just as the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament and the intertestamental period was able to guide the Second Temple Jews into a passive recognition of what God had already inspired (so much so that Christ could hold individuals accountable to the Scriptures without the Jews having any infallible source by which to know what the Scriptures were), the same occurs in the present age. And this is clearly evident from the fact that the canon I hold to is the same canon that was held to by the apostles, Athanasius, Origen, Jerome, and even Pope Gregory.
The idea that we need some kind of infallible authority to know the canon is, therefore, artificial and ad hoc. Since the Lord Jesus could hold men accountable for what the Scriptures were without any other infallible authority (and certainly not some Jewish Magisterium!), I have the exact same foundation that any Jew who lived in 50 BC had to know that Isaiah or Deuteronomy was Scripture. Namely, God has a purpose in inspiring that which is theopneustos and God will not allow his purpose (the edification of his people) to go amiss and, ergo, God has providentially lead people to recognise (not by means of an infallible authority external to Scripture, but through his passive guidance of the people) what he has already inspired as Scripture. What was always operative throughout the ages was the primacy of divine revelation. Moreover, as I have shown, Sola Scriptura was operative during the intertestamental period. The principle of Sola Scriptura was always operative inasmuch as the principle of the Sola is the primacy of divine revelation. The primatial authority of revelation is the constant common denominator. During the period of public revelation, you had prophets and apostles who spoke (as well as wrote) the word of God. But revelation, in that sense, is now confined to past revelation, committed to writing. Finally,

none of the apostolic or early church fathers (those who were closest to the apostles and were in the church) agreed with sola scriptura

This statement warrants substantiation, not an iota of which you have provided. To the contrary, as I have mentioned earlier, you will find that ─ taken in their respective contexts ─ the apostolic and early church fathers wholeheartedly affirmed Sola Scriptura. I can make my case with a wide myriad of different quotations from the ECFs, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll restrain myself to quoting a select few. “The holy and inspired Scriptures are fully sufficient for the proclamation of the truth.” ─ Athanasius (Against the Heathen, I:3) “Regarding the things I say, I should supply even the proofs, so I will not seem to rely on my own opinions, but rather, prove them with Scripture, so that the matter will remain certain and steadfast.” ─ John Chrysostom (Homily 8 On Repentance and the Church, p. 118, vol. 96 TFOTC) “Let the inspired Scriptures then be our umpire, and the vote of truth will be given to those whose dogmas are found to agree with the Divine words.” ─ Gregory of Nyssa (On the Holy Trinity, NPNF, p. 327).
“We are not entitled to such license, I mean that of affirming what we please; we make the Holy Scriptures the rule and the measure of every tenet; we necessarily fix our eyes upon that, and approve that alone which may be made to harmonize with the intention of those writings.” ─ Gregory of Nyssa (On the Soul and the Resurrection NPNF II, V:439) “What is the mark of a faithful soul? To be in these dispositions of full acceptance on the authority of the words of Scripture, not venturing to reject anything nor making additions. For, if ‘all that is not of faith is sin’ as the Apostle says, and ‘faith cometh by hearing and hearing by the Word of God,’ everything outside Holy Scripture, not being of faith, is sin.” ─ Basil the Great (The Morals, p. 204, vol 9 TFOTC). “We are not content simply because this is the tradition of the Fathers. What is important is that the Fathers followed the meaning of the Scripture.” ─ Basil the Great (On the Holy Spirit, Chapter 7, par. 16)
“For concerning the divine and holy mysteries of the Faith, we ought not to deliver even the most casual remark without the Holy Scriptures: nor be drawn aside by mere probabilities and the artifices of argument. Do not then believe me because I tell thee these things, unless thou receive from the Holy Scriptures the proof of what is set forth: for this salvation, which is of our faith, is not by ingenious reasonings, but by proof from the Holy Scriptures… The Holy Ghost Himself spoke the Scriptures; He has also spoken concerning Himself as much as He pleased, or as much as we could receive. Be those things therefore spoken, which He has said; for whatsoever He has not said, we dare not say.” ─ Cyril of Jerusalem (Catechetical Lectures, IV:17, in NPNF, Volume VII, p. 23.) “Neither dare one agree with catholic bishops if by chance they err in anything, but the result that their opinion is against the canonical Scriptures of God.” ─ Augustine (De unitate ecclesiae, chp. 10) Interestingly enough, note the choice of words that Irenaeus here employs: “We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith.” If your appeal to the wording of 2 Tim. 3:15 is sufficient to disprove Sola Scriptura, then my appeal to the wording of this church father is no less sufficient to prove Sola Scriptura. A parity of words, at the very least.


In this characteristic tome, I have sought to present an overview of the Biblical, logical, and historical case for the firm doctrine of Sola Scriptura. With regards to the contention that Sola Scriptura is self-refuting, I quoted three Scripture verses (2 Tim. 3:15-17; 1 Cor. 4:16; and Is. 8:20) ─ and even suggested that perhaps Sola Scriptura doesn’t exactly need to be explicitly set forth in Scripture; there is an ontic difference between God-breathed text and hearsay. I contended that, if the New Testament is the only infallible record of apostolic teaching we have from the first century, Sola Scriptura is a natural logical implication. I am confident that I have thoroughly refuted your appeals to Scripture (particularly 2 Thess. 2:15 and 1 Tim. 3:15). I discussed the importance of context, the self-presupposition of Scripture as to its formal sufficiency, and the high rate of decay involved in alleged oral tradition. Indeed, the New Testament “commends you to God and to the word of his grace” as the final standard for demarcating Christian doctrine from false teaching (Ac. 20:32). I enumerated the broad range of issues posed by the Magisterium and ‘infallible’ church tradition, noting how many objections raised against Sola Scriptura only kicks the can further down the road. I presented the cogent argument that Sola Scriptura (and neither an infallible Magisterium nor a collection of traditions) carries intertestamental precedent, providing a sound reply to the ‘canonicity’ objection. Finally, I quoted from various early church fathers as to the Scripture’s ultimate authority, material, and formal sufficiency. I trust you will not leave me without a response so I look forward to further discussion on this subject matter.
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