Scripture and Authority in Protestant Theology

November 8, 2008

Charlotte von Kirschbaum and Karl Barth

Charlotte von Kirschbaum and Karl Barth

Is the Protestant principle of sola scriptura illogical? Does it violate any formal rules of logic, namely committing the fallacy of circular argumentation (e.g., “The reason I believe in the authority of scripture is because scripture claims authority from God”) which, of course, entails begging the question? Dave Armstrong believes it does, and I think it’s fair to say that this is the general consensus of the Catholic apologetics world (which should be distinguished from academic Catholic scholarship). Apart from considerations of other doctrines, even soteriology, Protestant Christianity must be rejected for at least violating inscrutible laws of ratiocination in its authority principle. This post by Armstrong is a good example of this belief, where “inexorable, unarguable reasoning” requires us to reject sola scriptura.

The insurmountable problem facing the Protestant position, according to Armstrong, is the fact that scripture itself does not testify to its own exclusive authority. Combine that with scripture’s own lack of a table of contents (canon) and you have an inability for the Protestant to extra ecclesiam know what is scripture, in precise limits. And, thirdly, once the Protestant claims a certain set of texts as scripture, he still knows of his fallibility; thus, how can the fallible individual claim to know his canon of scripture is indeed scripture? The solution to these problems is the Church, according to Armstrong et al. The Church defines what is scripture, the Church tells us that this scripture is not solely authoritative for doctrine (at least not formally sufficient), and since the Church is infallible in this regard, the individual Christian can know both what is scripture and matters of faith not defined therein. The locus of the assent of faith is, then, the Church and, by extension, everything the Church binds de fide. So, for sake of clarity at the cost of redundancy, here is what this Catholic principle accomplishes:

1. Defining all that the Christian must believe as revelation from God.

2. Defining what is scripture — what texts are inspired witness to God’s revelation.

3. Defining with infallibility number 1 (and, thus, number 2).

This is, of course, a perfectly defensible and sensible position. The problem is believing that the Protestant principle is illogical and believing that the Catholic principle escapes the circularity which, supposedly, voids the Protestant position. A second problem is believing that either or both are (strictly) circular arguments. But, we cannot get to these problems without first understanding how both the Protestant and the Catholic determine what is revelation and, thus, infallible in its witness to God’s own self-revelation and a continuing part in this revealing of God to his elect until the parousia.

A real question for the Protestant is determining what is revelation from God, but this is equally a real question for the Catholic. The Catholic has determined that the Church is the vehicle of God’s revelation and, as such, requires the assent of faith. The Protestant has not determined any Church to have such authority, but he has determined that certain texts (scripture) proclaim God’s revelation and, as such, requires the assent of faith — but the Church does not therein play an inessential role. The use of the term, “determination,” should perhaps be replaced with “recognition,” since the Christian, in union with the Church, does not ascribe authority to scripture but, rather, acquieces to it, as he comes to faith by the Holy Spirit — a Spirit at movement with his fellow believers in the Church. The Protestant does not come to a collection of writings and then set about determining which are to be held as sacred. The Protestant becomes a Protestant, which is to say, becomes a Christian, in the Church, and it is with the Church that the Protestant joins in recognizing scripture. He would not even know the gospel if it were not for the Church, but the Church herself would not know the gospel if it were not for God’s election of Israel and Jesus Christ, which is also the election of the Church (the new Isreal). This covenantal revelation is recorded by the body of believers, Israel-Church, in writings which are then held as authoritative as they are the bearers of this revelation directly from God. We do not turn to Augustine, Thomas, or Barth in order to determine what God has revealed of Himself; rather, we turn (with Augustine, Thomas, and Barth) to the scriptures and confess accordingly. In the first centuries of the Church, it was her task to confess scripture, which includes confessing what should be included as scripture. The Christian joins with the Church in this confession, not with the understanding that the Church is infallible in its declarations here or elsewhere but with the understanding that this Church is the elect of God, given God himself in the Holy Spirit with a redeemed vision of His Word. Thus, the Church can err, but it is the Church which is given the commission to proclaim the gospel. The Church varied in multiple ways in what she considered scripture during the early centuries, and even in the Church of Rome of the 16th century there were disputes over the OT deuterocanon, with faithful cardinals taking the Jewish-Protestant position. But this did not put the Church of the 16th century in any more of an “illogical” position than the Church of the 4th century. The Protestant does not see the variations here and obvious indeterminancy as a threat to the holy mission of the Church, which nonetheless must include a confession of scripture. All of this, of course, leaves open the possibility that a Protestant may reject a certain writing as non-scriptural, just as the Church has collectively and variously, but not without due and weighty reference to the collective wisdom (under the Spirit’s tutelage) of the Church. It’s not to be taken lightly, to say the least; which is why a healthy pragmatism and understanding of God’s providence over all things makes the revision of the canon an unnecessary consideration for most Protestants.

Now, the question of circularity seems rather an odd charge. The Catholic believes in the divine authority of the Church, not because the Catholic Church simply “says so,” but because a comprehensive consideration of God’s revelation, in scripture and Church, reveals this charism of the Church. The Catholic can be wrong here just as much as the Protestant can in his determination of authoritative revelation. Hopefully these observations will lead to both sides moderating their claims, especially the charges of logical fallacy.

Recommended Further Reading

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, I.2, The Doctrine of the Word of God

John Webster, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch

P. T. Forsyth, The Principle of Authority

Craig Allert, A High View of Scripture?: The Authority of the Bible and the Formation of the New Testament Canon

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23 Responses to “Scripture and Authority in Protestant Theology”

  1. Randy said

    It seems you are going back to the notion that tradition validates the scriptures. That is reasonable but then you must deal with the whole tradition of the early church. If you accept their scriptures but deny their sacraments and their church governance then you need to have some reason why one would be trustworthy and not the other. When you invoke Augustine and Aquinas you make the problem worse. When you see them as fine Christians you need to explain why so many of those doctrines you see as major errors were accepted and even developed by them.

    • Jerry Foust said

      I think this critique needs to take into account the fundamental departure that Barth takes away from necessary reason inherent in the cosmological assumptions of Indo-European philosophy and culture, in favor of contingent reason inherent in a Semitic worldview, consistent with Jewishness of Jesus, who is, after all, the object and lense of his study. Barth’s departure from the dualism inherent in Kant and Schleiermacher is not evidently shared by Barth’s critic in this case–a fundamental choice that renders the criticism rather self-serving. Insofar as this critique appears to take Aristotelian notions of rational authority for granted, it begs the question at a deeper level than it accuses Barth of having taken. Also, it is obvious that actual knowing entails a heuristic circle or spiral of some kind in the relationship between the knowing subject and the object known (Polanyi), and some assumed reference point (Godel).
      Finally, Barth’s study of Anslem is pivotal in this discussion, and needs to be carefully comprehended and taken into account–as it powerfully counters the presumptive interpretations commonly presented in western philosophical education.

    • Jerry Foust said

      Both Thomistic Roman Catholicism and Liberal Protestantism together fall under Barth’s rejection of the analogia entis–which is at the root of his critique of authority.

  2. You seem to have misunderstood what I was saying. I do not say that tradition validates scripture. I’m not sure where you would get that from, nor anything about denying sacraments (though I do deny certain understandings). Neither do I invoke Augustine and Aquinas in any other manner than as fellow Christians and worthy theologians who should be consulted.

  3. Mark said

    The Protestant becomes a Protestant, which is to say, becomes a Christian, in the Church, and it is with the Church that the Protestant joins in recognizing scripture.

    The real crux of this issue seems to be how the Protestant and Catholic understand the Church. As you say, the Catholic believes the Church is the primary vehicle of revelation; the Protestant believes it is scripture. In this the Catholic could be rightly accused of sola ecclesia – a term I suspect no Catholic would reject even if it is as misleading as the term sola scriptura is for the Protestant. But in actuality, both the Protestant and the Catholic believe the Holy Spirit is the primary vehicle of revelation. Where we differ is in how that revelation is made manifest in our world.

    The Catholic believes in the divine authority of the Church, not because the Catholic Church simply “says so,” but because a comprehensive consideration of God’s revelation, in scripture and Church, reveals this charism of the Church. The Catholic can be wrong here just as much as the Protestant can in his determination of authoritative revelation.

    Of course, this is often not true, and it seems to presuppose a critically and theologically engaged Christian. A great many Catholics do believe in the divine authority of the Church simply because the Church says so; just as many Protestants believe in the divine authority of scripture simply because the Church (in the Protestant understanding) says so. Even in our day the vast majority of Christians are not critically engaged in theological arguments. The Christian comes to believe a particular set of doctrines because of the witness of the Church in its mission of spreading the gospel. I suspect you agree, and are talking specifically here of those who are critically engaged as Dave Armstrong and others supposedly are.

    Your post is a good one and hopefully will help moderate the inane views of Armstrong and company. Honestly, I doubt it will, but maybe it will help their readers to better understand the Protestant view of authority and Scripture.

  4. Mark said

    Looks like i forgot to close my italics somewhere up there. The only italics in the second paragraph are supposed to be for sola ecclesia and sola scriptura.

  5. A great many Catholics do believe in the divine authority of the Church simply because the Church says so

    True. In a sense, this is true for all Catholics, but the Catholic believes that the Church “says so” because of her divine authority. The Protestant is not required to show that scripture “says so” of its divine authority in order for it to be recognized as divine authority. In other words, I was trying to get beyond the charges of logical circularity. Recognizing what comes from God is fundamental to accepting x as worthy of de fide assent — and this undercuts any strict circularity in the claims. “I believe x because x claims to be from God” is a circular argument; “I believe x because x is from God” is not circular but would require filling-out why, in your belief, x is from God.

  6. Patrick said

    You may find this book interesting. Dovetailing with sola scriptura / Catholic apolgetics, it’s a neat account of the history behind the arrival of the KJV. It’s called “God’s Secretaries”, by Adam Nicholson. You’re probably pretty familiar with some of the story, but Nicholson goes into some autobiographical depth on a few of the major players. It’s a concise little book, but the implications of the history he’s written might be of use to you.

  7. Randy said

    You seem to have misunderstood what I was saying. I do not say that tradition validates scripture. I’m not sure where you would get that from
    I got it from your comment. What you described is tradition. You may not know what the word means but what you described is simply an acceptance of scripture based on tradition. It has become a dirty word in protestant circles but it simply means trusting that the fullness of Christendom would not be wrong about the content of the scripture. These books have been vetted by many great Christians and who am i to question them. This is essentially the argument you are making and it is a good one.

    , nor anything about denying sacraments (though I do deny certain understandings). Neither do I invoke Augustine and Aquinas in any other manner than as fellow Christians and worthy theologians who should be consulted.
    The problem is that once you accept the content of scripture based on the opinions of the vast majority of Christians over a long time then you have to look and wonder if there is similar agreement about other issues. It turns out there is. The church of the first 4 centuries agreed about baptismal regeneration and the real presence in the Eucharist. They agreed about the importance of bishops and ecumenical councils. So if you think they are wrong about those things then how sure can you be about the scriptures?

  8. Patrick,

    Thanks for the book recommendation. I’ve come across it before but never thought it may assist in these discussions.

    Randy,

    If I don’t know what “tradition” means (and its variant understandings), then I have no business doing this blog, much less this post. Whether tradition “validates” the scriptures is a quite different thing from the Church in history recognizing scripture (with some indeterminacy). The point of the Protestant position is that the Church of the 4th century is in the same situation as that of the 16th in needing to determine holy writ, but, from the Protestant position, nothing the Church does is necessarily and absolutely valid — thus, tradition (as the actions of the Church in history) does not validate the scriptures. Likewise, the Reformers did not take-over the Trinitarian dogmatics of the Catholic Church because the Church or tradition is absolutely trustworthy. Rather, the Reformers positioned themselves with the early fathers in consulting the apostolic witness and determining what is to be said of the Triune God of our salvation. I simply don’t have as clean and tight a view of history as you do, Randy. Which is also why I don’t think we can seriously say that there is a clear, coherent understanding of “real presence” in the early fathers — one problem being what the heck “real presence” means. I’ve read monographs on transubstantiation which describe it as the most spiritual of eucharistic theories (because physical phenomena is coterminous with accidental phenomena).

  9. Mark said

    Rather, the Reformers positioned themselves with the early fathers in consulting the apostolic witness and determining what is to be said of the Triune God of our salvation. I simply don’t have as clean and tight a view of history as you do, Randy. Which is also why I don’t think we can seriously say that there is a clear, coherent understanding of “real presence” in the early fathers

    I understand this is going beyond the scope of the post, but a curious argument seems to be made here. Reformers went to the early fathers (i.e. historical inquiry), but history is not “clean and tight”, such that we can’t even say there was a clear and coherent understanding of the real presence. So, the Reformers dug back into the fathers and the scriptures, but such historical inquiry is wrought with difficulties.

    Am I wrong in saying that you’ve just collapsed Christian doctrine into historical research? I ask, because N.T. Wright seems to do the same at the beginning of The New Testament and the People of God.

    I do not deny that historical research plays a key role in Christian theology because many of the fundamental Christian claims are historical claims. But if this is what doctrine reduces to then I have trouble seeing what role the Church plays in doctrinal matters. It seems the Church declares a doctrine like the divinity of Christ, but the doctrine is only taken to be true because scholars have vouched for it.

    And I don’t think this is a problem only for the Protestant, but for the Catholic as well. I would just be interested in how the difficulty might be addressed.

  10. True. For someone like Hans Kung it certainly does seem that doctrine collapses into historical research. I don’t think I can offer much more than say that we have to achieve a balance between two extremes — Kung on one end and ahistorical neoscholasticism (“ecclesial positivism”?) on the other end. Divine revelation for the Christian is a historical phenomenon, yet God is transcendent and not immanent with historical contingencies — thus, we have to keep both in tension. For what it’s worth, I think de Lubac, von B, and Barth do this well.

  11. Mark said

    Oh, now that the name of Hans Kung has been thrown out there I must clear the air about N.T. Wright. :)

    Wright is obviously no Kung and is not trying to actually reduce doctrine to historical research. Wright would certainly advocate a balanced approach as he advocates a balanced approach to historical inquiry (i.e. balanced between the hyper phenomenalism of postmodernism and the cock-sure historical positivism of the Enlightenment).

  12. Randy said

    The point of the Protestant position is that the Church of the 4th century is in the same situation as that of the 16th in needing to determine holy writ, but, from the Protestant position, nothing the Church does is necessarily and absolutely valid — thus, tradition (as the actions of the Church in history) does not validate the scriptures.
    I would say the church of the 4th century has a huge advantage in being 12 centuries closer to the life of Christ than the 16th century church was. But what does tradition mean? Sure, a protestant would reject a more formal definition of what Catholic mean by Sacred Tradition. But tradition in the less formal sense. The idea that over time certain ideas have grown up. These include ideas about who wrote certain new testament books. Eventually growing into ideas about which books belong in scripture and which do not. I would call this tradition. It seems you have a different definition.

    I do think information about the books of scripture comes from some of the same sources as teachings the protestants reject. Certainly one always has the option of declaring things to be unclear. An example of this argument is here:

    http://www.bringyou.to/apologetics/a22.htm

  13. Randy said

    Which is also why I don’t think we can seriously say that there is a clear, coherent understanding of “real presence” in the early fathers — one problem being what the heck “real presence” means. I’ve read monographs on transubstantiation which describe it as the most spiritual of eucharistic theories (because physical phenomena is coterminous with accidental phenomena).

    There is a development of doctrine over time. The question is not whether they understood the eucharist in the same way the church understands it today. They did not. They question is whether what they understood is compatible with today’s Catholic doctrine and/or any of the protestant doctrines. What they wrote seems to fit with Catholic theology and probably some Lutheran and Anglican theology as well. But it is different from what most protestants teach today. Particularly when they talked about the elements changing into the body and blood of Jesus. Even going so far as to use it as proof that the Gnostics were wrong about Jesus not having a physical body.

  14. Martin said

    Hi Kevin,

    Good to see you fulfilled your pledge to take a swipe at the Catholic apologist conceit that Protestantism is illogical while Catholicism though faith based is logical. As I’m definitely one your low-brow readers (and DA’s) I apologize for not following your argument.

    DA’s argument, as I grasp it:
    1 Protestants say SS is infallibly true.
    2. Protestants say the only infallible truth is in the bible
    3. The bible fails to teach SS
    4. Thus SS is untrue.

    alternatively the Catholic argument, as I can best express it would be:

    1. An infallible God gave us an Infallible institution, the Catholic Church.
    2. Through the infallible institution God gave us the infallible scriptures.
    3. The infallible scriptures confirm 1 and 2.

    Oops, my son is crying. I have to go. Have you noted on DA’s blog your reply. I’ll be excited to see better versed people than I replying (that includes you, Randy who I’ve read from your own blog.

  15. Hi Kevin,

    Thanks for your reply. I’ll be making a comprehensive “inane” response; I think tomorrow (Tuesday).

    Some people may think my argument is a simple thing, and only one argument. It is not: it is a convergence of many different strands of argument, as presented in many papers of mine (pointed out to you when you asked) that contend that Protestant authority structure and rule of faith are self-defeating.

    In Him,

    Dave

  16. Randy,

    I’m not so sure that the 4th century had a better understanding of the 1st century materials than our scholars today. That may sound bizarre, but the history of the church is full of amazing examples of inept and/or overly-credulous historical claims — including what actually belonged to the 1st century and, especially, how the 1st century Greco-Roman 2nd temple world thought. The fact that Pseudo-Dionysius (Denys) in the 6th century could actually be believed to be contemporaneous with Paul is one well-known example — and truly amazing, considering the obviously later neoplatonic speculations of Denys. Anyway, we are truly indebted to the excellent form critical work of our scholars in the past several decades, giving us a knowledge of the biblical world (language and ideas) than Thomas or Calvin could ever dream of.

    I take your point about the different understanding of tradition, and that there certainly is a credulity in the Protestant claims that are not demonstrable in any strict sense.

    As for the Eucharist, I wouldn’t locate the continuity with the early and medieval church at the point of physics-metaphysics (so-called “real presence”), but with the doctrine of Eucharistic sacrifice. Just helpin’ you guys out a little :)

  17. Martin,

    It’s not that “Protestants say sola scripture is infallibly true” (your point #1); it’s that Protestant only recognize scripture (a defined record) as infallibly true. It’s not some “principle” that Protestants begin with and then try to prove. Protestants believe anything from God (i.e., revelation of God) is true and requires the assent of faith. Only scripture is determined as such, and thus “only” scripture is considered (in religious matters) infallibly true. This is a fine distinction, but a critical one — as most debates end-up hinging upon.

  18. Alright, Dave. Glad to further the discussion.

  19. [...] talk past eachother when discussing Sola Scriptura. I was noticing this in the recent backand forth between Kevin Davis and Dave Armstrong. Protestants try to prove Sola Scriptora by marshalling as [...]

  20. Kevin et. al. I have written a response to your post at my own blog, feel free to check it out.

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