Thursday, October 29, 2009

Me and Sola Scriptura: My reply to Guy Davies

As I have already mentioned, Guy Davies, at Exiled Preacher, has reviewed Return to Rome. In his review, he suggests that my rejection of sola scriptura was really a rejection of a fundamentalist biblicism and not really a rejection of the Reformed doctrine. He writes:

Increasingly Beckwith struggled with the Protestant teaching of sola scriptura, finding the Catholic teaching where God reveals himself through Holy Scripture and the traditions of the Church more appealing. Of course, if Church teaching is a source of continuing revelation alongside Scripture, then it doesn't matter that certain Catholic dogmas can't be found in the Bible. On that basis the primacy of the Pope, purgatory, the Marian doctrines and so on may be accepted simply as the authoritative dogmas of the Church. The fact that they have no evident biblical foundation is besides the point. The Church has infallibly pronounced that these dogmas must be accepted by the faithful and that's that. However, it might be objected that Beckwith has not properly understood what the Reformers meant by sola scriptura. He seems to have had a rather biblicist understanding of the doctrine that excludes the role of the church as reader and teacher of Holy Scripture. By sola scriptura, the Reformers did not mean to separate the Bible from the Church. Rather they insisted that the Holy Spirit speaking in Scripture is the supreme authority in the Church. The Church has ministerial authority to interpret and bear witness to the message of the Bible, but the Church and her traditions remain under the critical authority of God's written Word. The Church may restate the teaching of Scripture using other than biblical language in order to make its message plain, but she cannot add to God's self-revelation in Holy Scripture.
I can see why Mr. Davies interprets my work this way. However, I do address in Return to Rome the distinction he makes between biblicist and Reformed views of sola scriptura. (Admittedly, I may have not done it very well, and for that I take full responsibility). I confess in the book that I found the sola scriptura of the Magisterial Reformation far more compelling than the sort found among many American Evangelicals and Fundamentalists (which Mr. Davies refers to as "biblicism," if I understand him correctly).

Here is what I in fact write in chapter 5 of Return to Rome:
One may wonder where the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura (or “Scripture alone”) factored in all this. To be blunt, it didn’t. Primarily because over the years I could not find an understanding or definition of sola scriptura I found convincing enough that did not have to be so qualified that it seemed to be more a slogan than a standard. Here is the way sola scriptura is defined in the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646):

The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit or traditions of men.[i]

This was published long after the deaths of Martin Luther (1483–1546) and John Calvin (1509–1564). The Reformation churches had been firmly established for many decades. It was a product of what has been called “Reformed scholasticism,” and did not exhibit the more historically oriented understanding of sola scriptura that one finds in Luther and Calvin. As my Baptist Baylor colleague, D. H. Williams, points out, the “Magisterial Reformers such as Luther and Calvin did not think of sola scriptura as something that could be properly understood apart from the church or the foundational tradition of the church, even while they were opposing some of the institutions of the church.”[ii] This is why I found their sola scriptura views to be much more sensible than what I found among many contemporary Evangelical Protestants, who had imbibed far too much of the spirit of Reformed scholasticism. My Evangelical Protestant contemporaries seemed to treat the Bible as if it could be read as an authoritative depositary of orthodox doctrine apart from the historic church and the formation of Christian theology during the early centuries of its existence. The whole idea that, according to the Westminster Confession, one may “deduce” necessary doctrines from “Scripture” treats theology as if it were a branch of mathematics. It’s as if the Reformed scholastics were anticipating the nineteenth-century legal formalists of whom Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. would write, “I once heard a very eminent judge say that he never let a decision go until he was absolutely sure that it was right. So judicial dissent often is blamed, as if it meant simply that one side or the other were not doing their sums right, and if they would take more trouble, agreement inevitably would come.”[iii]

But as I slowly and unconsciously moved toward Catholicism in the early 2000s, I began to even find the sola scriptura of the Magisterial Reformation not entirely satisfactory. It seemed to me to subtlety and unconsciously incorporate into its theological framework all the doctrines that sola scriptura, without a settled canon or authoritative creedal traditions, could have never produced out of whole cloth without the benefit of a Holy Spirit-directed ecclesiastical infrastructure. It brought to mind what the philosopher Bertrand Russell said of the advantages of “the method of ‘postulating’”: “they are the same as the advantages of theft over honest toil.”[iv]

Many of the contemporary Evangelical Protestants I read offered understandings of sola scriptura that were based on less than convincing biblical exegesis, [v] or implicitly or explicitly relied on extra-scriptural support to justify either the scope of the biblical canon[vi] or essential doctrines that are not easily derived from Scripture without the necessary assistance of philosophical and theological categories arrived at through the development of doctrine that arose alongside, and in accordance with, the formation of the canon.[vii] John Henry Cardinal Newman, for instance, asks us to consider just the doctrine of the Trinity as articulated in the Athanasian Creed:

Is this to be considered as a mere peculiarity or no? Apparently a peculiarity; for on the one hand it is not held by all Protestants, and next, it is not brought out in form in Scripture. First, the word Trinity is not in Scripture. Next I ask, How many of the verses of the Athanasian Creed are distinctly set down in Scripture? and further, take particular portions of the doctrine, viz., that Christ is co-eternal with the Father, that the Holy Ghost is God, or that the Holy Ghost proceedeth from the Father and the Son, and consider the kind of texts and the modes of using them, by which the proof is built up. Yet is there a more sacred, a more vital doctrine in the circle of the articles of faith than that of the Holy Trinity?[viii]

In any event, I had for some time accepted a weak form of sola scriptura: any doctrine or practice inconsistent with Scripture must be rejected, though it does not follow that any doctrine or practice not explicitly stated in Scripture must suffer the same fate, for the doctrine or practice may be essential to Christian orthodoxy. This seemed to me to be the only defensible understanding of sola scriptura, though it certainly left much to be desired.

When all was said and done, and given these reasons--which I could have offered in greater detail if not for the book's modest purpose--I found the Protestant view of Scripture far less plausible than the Catholic view. Hence, I write in chapter 7 of Return to Rome:

According to the [Catholic] Church, the Bible itself, though infallible, arose from the life of the Church, in its liturgical practices and theological reflections. It is a source of theological truth, to be sure, and uniquely the Word of God written. But the Church maintains, quite sensibly, that the Bible cannot be read in isolation from the historic Church and the practices [and beliefs] that were developing [e.g., purgatory, praying for the dead, penance, Eucharistic realism, etc.] alongside the Church’s creeds—creeds that became permanent benchmarks of orthodoxy during the same eras in which the canon of Scripture itself was finally fixed. [ix] So, for the Catholic, the Magesterium and the Papacy are limited by both Scripture and a particular understanding of Christian doctrine, forged by centuries of debate and reflection, and, in many cases, fixed by ecumenical councils. Consequently, the Catholic Church and its leadership are far more constrained from doctrinal innovation than the typical Evangelical megachurch pastor.

Oddly enough, Mr. Davies seems to make my point for me:
Beckwith suggests that in speaking of deduction, the WCF views theology almost as "branch of mathematics". He alleges the Puritans who drew up the confession used Scripture as a repository of truths from which principles could be logically deduced, sidelining the confessional heritage of the Church (p. 80). But this is not the case. The Westminster Confession deliberately incorporates the insights of earlier creedal documents. For all its Puritan distinctives, at heart the confession a work of Catholic theology. Its statement on the Trinity (Chapter II) bears all the hallmarks of Nicean orthodoxy. Its chapter on Christ the Mediator (VIII) freely uses the language of the Definition of Chalcedon. Its doctrine of sin and salvation is positively Augustinian (chapters IX-XVIII).
What I am suggesting in Return to Rome is that the Nicean orthodoxy offered by the Puritan divines was only possible because they had the benefit of a Spirit-directed Magisterium that had secured this orthodoxy as normative over 12 centuries prior to the Westminster Confession of Faith. But, like flowers picked from the ground and admired for their beauty, these doctrines, removed from the Church in which they developed and were nurtured, began to whither and die. Eventually, the spirit of protestation culturally institutionalized by Luther and Calvin and their followers throughout Europe (and subsequently in the New World) produced scores of offshoots and strange sects whose theologians and leaders pruned the faith even more, leading to everything from Unitarianism to Liberal Protestantism, encompassing everyone from Campbellites to anti-creedal Baptists, each claiming in its (or his) own way to be a consequence of sola scriptura.

Thus, for me, it seemed that the Catholic account of doctrinal development and ecclesial authority had much more explanatory power (in comparison to the standard Reformed narrative) to account for much of what Evangelical Protestants firmly believe is the only reasonable reading of the Bible on matters concerning God, Christ, and the inspiration and authority of Scripture. Not only that, the Catholic account makes better sense of the complexities of the life of faith by offering a soteriology that affirms both God's sovereignty as well as the opportunity Christ's love affords us to participate in the divine life. It rejects as artificial bifurcations the "dilemmas" that are the woof and warp of most Protestant theologies: God's sovereignty v. Man's autonomy, faith v. works, Scripture v. tradition, body v. soul, nature v. grace. It sees the Church and its theology as an organism whose parts work in concert for the benefit of the whole rather than as a machine whose parts have no organic relation to the whole or each other. This is why the Catholic cannot pick and choose his theology as if he were buying a computer and deciding to purchase or reject certain components or software. Consequently, in the Catholic Church, though one encounters a range of opinions on a variety of issues, one will find no "five views," "four views" or "three views" books, like one finds in the world of sola scriptura, on the most important aspects of the Christian life and its relationship to God, e.g., divine foreknowledge, church government, law and gospel, baptism, divorce and remarriage, women's ordination, sanctification, Christian worship, and the Lord's Supper.

So, at the end of the day, it seemed to me that the greatness I found in Protestantism could only be accounted for by Catholicism.


[i]The Westminster Confession of Faith (1646), chapter I, sec. VI, available at (19 April 2008)

[ii]D. H. Williams, Evangelicals and Tradition: The Formative Influence of the Early Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), 97.

[iii]Oliver Wendell Holmes, “The Path of the Law,” Harvard Law Review 10 (1897)

[iv]Bertrand Russell, Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy (London: Routledge, 1919; reprinted 1993), 71. Nevertheless, I am still convinced that the sola scriptura of the Magisterial Reformers is really the only coherent Protestant view that has the theological resources to ward off the ahistorical individualism of the isolated Christian whose “Bible” becomes a reservoir of proof-texts for one’s dogmatic proclivities (or what Keith Mathison calls solo scriptura). See Mathison’s thoughtful tome, The Shape of Sola Scriptura (Moscow, ID: Canon, 2001), 346–47.

[v]For example, consider the verses in II Timothy that are often employed as part of a biblical case for sola scriptura: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that all God’s people may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (3:16–17–TNIV). No doubt that if sola scriptura is true, this isolated passage would at best lend support for it or at worst not be inconsistent with it. But it certainly does not establish it. For this reason, it is difficult to see how one can get the Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura out of this passage. (See Craig A. Allert, A High View of Scripture: The Authority of the Bible and the Formation of the New Testament [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007], 150–152).

The wider context of this passage is also problematic for a Reformed understanding of sola scriptura. In verse 13 St. Paul contrasts St. Timothy with “evildoers and imposters” and then in verses 14 and 15 pleads with him to “continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through Christ Jesus.” St. Paul then makes a general claim about Scripture as “God-breathed,” as well as being “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that all God’s people may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (v. 16). What stands out is that St. Paul’s instructions include appeals to tradition: his own teachings as well as what St. Timothy “has learned…because” he “know[s] those from whom” he “learned it.” These instructions are so that St. Timothy may live a life of holiness (“training in righteousness”), fidelity to the Christian faith (“continue in what you have learned and become convinced of”), and good works. To be sure, Scripture is useful in equipping St. Timothy, but it is not isolated from the Church and the traditions that contributed to St. Timothy’s spiritual development. Thus, it is difficult to see how one can get the Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura out of II Tim. 3:16–17 when its wider context is taken into account.

[vi]Because there can be no scriptural test for canonicity unless one first knows what constitutes Scripture, one must rely on extra-scriptural tests in order to know the scriptura to which sola scriptura refers. But then one is not actually relying on “Scripture alone” to determine the most fundamental standard for the Christian, the Bible. This means that sola scriptura is a first-order principle whose content must be determined by one or more second-order extra-scriptural principle(s).

[vii]This is a bit dicey, since it was only local, and not ecumenical, councils that provided an official list of canonical books in the end of the 4th and the beginning of the 5th centuries. Kelly notes that the canon was recognized by the local councils of Hippo (A.D. 393) and Carthage III (AD 397) as well as “in the famous letter which Pope Innocent I dispatched to Exuperius, bishop of Toulouse, in 405.” (J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, rev. ed. [San Francisco: HarperOne, 1978], 56)

[viii]John Henry Cardinal Newman, Discussions and Arguments on Various Subjects (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1907), 144–145.

[ix]“Read the Scripture within `the living Tradition of the whole Church.” Catechism of the Catholic Church: Revised in Accordance With the Official Latin Text Promulgated by Pope John Paul II, 2nd ed. (Washington, DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2000), 113

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