Sunday, December 6, 2009

Matt Yonke: "Hermeneutics and the Authority of Scripture"

Over at one of my favorite websites, Called to Communion, Matt Yonke has published a thoughtful piece on the Catholic and Reformed views of Scripture. Here are some excerpt (notes omitted):
It is my pleasure to be able to write on a subject where we as Catholics share so much common ground with our Reformed brothers, and even with most Evangelicals. In fact, it is no small thing that we agree upon foundational truths contra mundum in a time when even many Christians deny them.

This article intends to show that, though Protestants agree with the Catholic Church on the basic truths about Scripture and its authority, the Reformed view of Scripture errs in three respects: in its assumption about the canon of Scripture, in its view of the authority of Scripture, and in its view of the role of Sacred Scripture in the life of the Church. These errors are harmful to the faith, and the truth proclaimed by the Catholic Church about its Sacred books is the perfect corrective....

The first problem is one of epistemology. For all the many attempts to prove otherwise, two of which I examine below, Protestants simply have no way to verify a canon apart from a subjective internal witness. R.C. Sproul claims that we have a “fallible collection of infallible books,” but on what basis can he know that each of these books is infallible? It has never been the view of the Church that the books of Sacred Scripture are anything less than an infallible and trustworthy standard.

Sproul argues that Scripture claims infallibility for itself, but that there are other fallible authorities in the world, such as the Church, that are nonetheless authoritative in spite of their fallibility. According to Sproul, on the basis of the Church as an institution founded by God acting with His authority, we can trust that the Scriptures were rightly identified by the Church.

But the claim that we have a fallible collection of infallible books does not solve the problem of how we know which books are inspired and which are not; in fact it creates more problems. His argument points to the Scriptures as evidence supporting the claim that the Scriptures are infallible. But the evidence supporting the claim that the Scriptures are infallible is unavailable unless we already know which books belong to the canon. Even beyond that problem, there is an additional question: if we can trust God to guide the Church to establish a canon of infallible books, why can we not trust her when she explains to us what these books mean? The Protestant answer is, of course, to compare the later teachings of the Church to the teachings of Scripture. But this brings us right back to square zero. If the Church can err, for example, in proclaiming that icons ought to be venerated, she can err just as easily in compiling a canon, and it would be ad hoc to allow ecclesial infallibility in establishing the canon but deny infallibility in every other ecclesial activity.

The fallibility of the canon, of course, presents its own problems. The fallible list could be excluding divinely inspired books that commend us to offer prayers for the dead, that could lead (and have led) many into the grievous error of not praying for the souls of the faithful departed or a host of other doctrines. Furthermore, there would be no way for the Protestant Christian to know if that was the case....

A second problem with the Reformed view is that it attributes to Sacred Scripture a functional capacity that Sacred Scripture does not claim for itself. The Protestant view attempts to ascribe to Sacred Scripture the role of final court of appeal in matters of faith and morals, citing the theory that clear passages will elucidate those that are unclear. But such notions are simply not found in Sacred Scripture....

Finally, the Reformed view also ascribes to Sacred Scripture a capacity that, on a purely practical level, a book simply cannot bear.

A book provides words that must be interpreted to be understood. A person speaking to us in person, like the Apostles speaking to the early Churches, can explain the meaning of his speech. A book cannot elucidate problem passages for us. Given the fallibility of human understanding and the diversity of perspectives regarding interpretation, especially over the span of 2,000 years of Church history, it is simply not possible that a book by its very nature could be the supreme rule of faith and doctrine. At least it cannot do this if we expect there to be a consistent understanding of this book that would work itself out into consistent faith and practice. A human, or set of humans, must make the final decision about the meaning of written texts.

The Protestant response, of course, is an appeal to perspicuity. The doctrine of the perspicuity of the Scriptures refers to the claim that the Scriptures are able, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to make the truths essential to salvation known to any reader....

But even if there were a case to be made from the Scriptures for the perspicuity of the Scriptures, reality tells a different story. Learned Scripture scholars and even the revered figures of various modern Reformed communities cannot agree on what “the gospel” is, much less on the meaning of the Sacraments or any number of other topics of great doctrinal importance. The Federal Vision controversy is a striking testament to this discord. This, of course, is why we see such disparate faiths and practices among our Protestant brothers, even among our Reformed brothers who hold to a common set of confessions. The Reformed have 21 denominations in Switzerland, 14 in the UK and 44 in the US, all divided because of some irreconcilable doctrinal difference.

This is also the source of continual splitting that the history of the Reformed denominations has borne out. When each individual, or even each presbytery or each denomination decides where the boundaries of orthodoxy are on the basis of its own understanding of Sacred Scripture, even with the guide of the Reformed confessions, division at least every fifty years or so is practically a design feature.

Unless there is an arbiter of these interpretive disagreements, there will necessarily be division and disagreement about basic tenets of the Christian faith. This division is contrary to Christ’s prayer in John 17 and unacceptable for the witness of the Church to the outside world.

From these historical facts, we see that a book simply does not have the capacity in and of itself to function in the way the Westminster Confession claims it must function. A book cannot resolve an interpretive dispute about itself, decide who is right in a doctrinal controversy, or address any areas that it does not address. If Scripture were intended to do this, as Protestants claim, we would not see the history of division and infighting that we see. Indeed, the entirety of the Protestant experiment hinges on the truth of the idea that the Scriptures were intended to function as described by the Westminster Confession. The Scripture’s inability to perform the ecclesial function expected of it by the Confession is one of the more common factors provoking Protestants to consider the claims of the Catholic Church, and eventually leave their communities to seek full communion with the body that Christ founded to give us the true interpretation of Sacred Scripture....

Read the whole think here.

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