Monday, April 5, 2010

Sola Scriptura and Epistemological Religious Certainty

Recently I was asked by a Roman Catholic friend how I could escape Liberal and Unitarian arguments with sola Scriptura? I thought that was an excellent question! Here is my answer:

Both Liberalism and Unitarianism deny sola Scriptura by denying the sufficiency of Scripture, which is essential to a proper understanding of sola Scriptura. In other words, we may place both aberrations on the poles of a continuum defined by Scriptural sufficiency.

On one end is the denial of Scriptural sufficiency due to the denial that Scripture is our only infallible rule in matters of faith and practice (i.e. Liberalism). In this theory other authorities are accepted as infallible. In other words, Scriptural authority is supplemented with something else.

On the other end is a denial of Scriptural sufficiency due to the denial that Scripture was/is sufficient as our  only infallible rule in matters of faith and practice in the same way over time (i.e. Unitarianism). In other words, the sufficiency of Scripture is denied for past generations of interpreters, completely undermining the authority of tradition (unless of course they were Unitarian!). This is sometimes referred to as solo Scriptura as opposed to sola Scriptura.

Of course there will always be difficulties with respect to the unity of the church. The question is not whether sinners will have difficulty confessing and living according to the truth of God's self-revelation. That is a given. Roman Catholics and Reformed Catholics just resolve that tension differently.

Roman Catholicism posits epistemological religious certainty in an essentially perspicuous and self-authenticating Apostolic office (i.e. the Roman see). Reformed Catholicism posits epistemological religious certainty in an essentially perspicuous and self-authenticating Apostolic teaching (i.e. the completed canon of Scripture).

Either way, at the end of the day Roman Catholics and Reformed Catholics are trusting in someone else. We are slaves in need of a good master.

Roman Catholics have found that master in the Apostolic office, which they trust continues to the end of the age. Reformed Catholics, on the other hand, have found that master in the God-breathed Apostolic teaching, the foundation of the church completed with the death of the last Apostle (Matt. 16:18; 18:18; Eph. 2:20; Jude 3).

17 comments:

Reepicheep said...

Well said Jay. Very Helpful. Thanks.

M. Jay Bennett said...

Thanks Tony.

Chris Donato said...

Call my faith sketchy, but I can't shake the notion that even on my best days a good bit of uncertainty lurks beneath the surface. Both Rome's and the Reformed's responses that you've outlined ("self-authenticating Apostolic office" or "teaching") sounds good on paper, but in practice I'm not so sure it provides much cognitive rest. Certainly not denying the Reformed position on this, just wondering out loud whether or not it solves the problem of "religious certainty."

This might be, incidentally, yet another good reason to embrace amillennialism!

M. Jay Bennett said...

Chris,

I think our certainty of Scripture's self-authentication is ultimately the work of the Spirit. I would be willing to call it a miracle even though it's not a visible work of God, which some have said is a defining characteristic of the miraculous.

Also, I think religious certainty (or assurance) is both the formative and normative Christian experience. Nonetheless, I think we all struggle with doubt from time to time in varying degrees.

On this being another reason to embrace amillennialism, one word comes to mind: touche! :-)

Mark said...

Hello,

my name is Mark. I am Catholic, and stumbled into this blog. The tone here seems very charitable, and I think that's a wonderful thing, really.

However, like your friend, I have some question/ or objections rather to the Sola Sriptura view.

Okay, here's the problem as I understand it.

At some point in history, a discrimination between books had to be made. Of all the books that were 'considered' or 'regarded' as divinely inspired, the Church had to decide which one's 'actually were' divinely inspired. This is the historical dilemma. We see atheists and skeptics use this as fuel for an objection when they object to the certainty one can have with respect to the content of Christian religious revelation- they (without good reason) might say things like, 'they changed books in the Bible', when asked why they do not believe that what the Bible says is true.

Okay, now here is the question: how do you justify your belief in the correctness of the historical decision? The fact is that the Church had to discriminate between the books which were divinely inspired and the books which were not?

The answers sometimes either take the form of: personal testimony from the Holy Spirit, we find out by reason, or a combination of the both. Do you endorse any of these?

I don't think we can know the divine quality of a text by reason. I don't think we can know the divine quality of a text by literary analysis- i.e. the comparison of textual qualities so as to find which books look like they fit nicely together. And I do not think that it's reasonable to think that our knowledge of the inspiration of a book is reliant upon a personal revelation to each individual person- this is how Mormons say that they know that their book is divinely inspired.

Here is my view as a Catholic: I believe that the Canon is innerant because it was decided upon by an infallible teaching magisterial authority. This is a very coherent concept, even if it is false- which I would be willing to show why it is not.

Best,
Mark

M. Jay Bennett said...

Mark,

Ultimately I believe the Scriptures are self-authenticating. That means the Spirit-indwelled church will recognize the Spirit-inspired texts.

Roman Catholicism confesses the same thing with regard to the infallibility of the magisterium. In other words, you ask how I can know what is Scripture without another authority saying so? I could also ask, how you can know that other authority is true without another authority saying so? And we find ourselves at the problem of an infinite regress.

At the bottom of it all, for Roman Catholicism the Apostolic office is self-authenticating. For Reformed Catholicism the Apostolic teaching is self-authenticating.

Roman Catholicism believes the authority of the church establishes the authority of Scripture. Reformed Catholicism believes the authority of Scripture establishes the authority of the church.

Mark said...

What do you mean when you say that Scriptures are self-authenticating? And why do you think that this is true?

I do not think that Scriptures are self-authenticating, and I don't know any good reasons for thinking so.

I don't think that you intend to misrepresent what I have said thus far, but I think you have overgeneralized my objection and missed my point as a result.

There is no problem of infinite regress, and I'll show you why. I believe in the authority of Roman Catholicism based on the authority of Jesus Christ. I have access first of all to Jesus' claim of authority by historical inquiry, and then by faith. I read the Bible and accept the natural claims of the Bible (as opposed to supernatural claims) as historical facts- a person names Jesus claimed to be God. (even the atheist agrees with me up to here). But, now, I put my faith in Jesus and all He has said. So NOW, I have the authority off of which I base my belief in the authority of Roman Catholicism. And there, that's it- no infinite regress. (though, we might say that Jesus' authority has been given by God the Father, but even this just gives us one more level of explanation- not an infinite regress of explanations).

Even if what I have said earlier is also an objection to Catholicism (which I think I have showed that it is not), there is still a question. I would like you to answer the question. (Perhaps your idea of self-authentication is your answer, if so, then please explain it a bit more as I have asked above.)

What warrant do you have for believing in the correctness of the Church's decision to accept some books as divinely inspired while reject others?

Maybe you think that the objection actually shows that we do not have an infallible list, but rather a fallible list of infallible books- a view espoused by (I think) R.C. Sproul. I think this view is very wrong, and very problematic- but I thought I just might show it as one way that you might go.

Best,
Mark

M. Jay Bennett said...

The doctrine of scriptural self-authentication is described well in the Westminster Confession of Faith 1.4-5:

The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, depends not upon the testimony of any man, or Church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.

We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the Church to an high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scripture. And the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is, to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man's salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it does abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God: yet notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.


I believe God's word is true in the same way that I believe God is true. God is and has spoken; therefore I believe.

You wrote that the authority of the magisterium is based on the authority of Christ. I would say the same with respect to the Holy Scripture.

If your historical inquiry about Jesus is the foundation of your belief in the authority of the RC magisterium, by what authority do you receive your historical inquiry about Jesus as true?

Mark said...

I believe my historical inquiry about Jesus because it is credible. I have no reason for doubt, because historical inquiry is reliable. I can believe Abraham Lincoln lived and said certain things merely because of historical inquiry. I see no reason for raising doubt about this- and it doesn't seem like you are. My point is that there is no need for justification further than this- this is the starting point, and I think everybody agrees to this.

The belief that needs some basis other than 'historical inquiry' is the belief that the Canon is correct, and that absolutely no mistakes were made in discriminating divinely inspired books for non-inspired books. Because I am not asking the historical question, 'What books did the Church decide to accept as divinely inspired?'. That is an easy question that even the non-believer can answer. I a asking the more interesting question, 'Why did the Church decide to accept those books as divinely inspired, why do you think that they made no mistake?'.

I don't think those questions are objections to Catholicism, and even if they are, I don't think that the passage you cited is an adequate answer.

The passage you quoted says that we can know in the following ways: testimony of Church, heavenliness of the matter, efficacy of the doctrine, majesty of the style, consent of all parts, scope of the whole, discovery it makes of way of man's salvation, other incomparable excellencies, and the final one looks like work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness in our hearts. To be honest, I don't even understand what all these things mean.

How do any of those give a satisfactory answer to my questions? The only answer that seems that it might work is the testimony of the Holy Spirit- but is personal testimony reliable? Mormons say that the way you know that the book of Mormon is divinely inspired is that you will receive the burning in the bosom- and we don't believe them. Also, seems like this hypothesis ,it would fail. (not because God doesn't have the power, but I don't think it is God's will to do things this way). Do you thin it would pass a test? If your hypothesis is true, then it should be able to pass this test- right?


Suppose Abraham Lincoln said to a man, 'from now on, you have the authority to teach, and you will teach infallibly, and your teaching authority will be present on earth until the end of the world'. We would say- okay, Abraham Lincoln might have said something like that (though I don't think he really did), but that doesn't make it true- we have no reason for thinking that Abraham Lincoln has the authority/power to say such things, and he also does not have the ability to know the future so he couldn't have been telling the truth when he said that he knew that the teaching authority would last until the end of the world. In short, there is no motive of credibility for Abraham Lincoln- at least with respect to making supernatural claims and/or the sorts of claims that only God can make.

Now, in the case of Jesus, I have the same sort of historical information as I would have of Abraham Lincoln. I know about Him, and know what He said. However, in the case of Jesus, there is a motive of credibility. (ever heard of the Liar, Lord, or Lunatic argument?) I put my faith in all that Jesus and all that He has said. Jesus established One Church, with the ability to teach infallibly. The motive of credibility (which I can discover by historical method) of Jesus can lead to an act of faith. This act of faith, or faith in Jesus Christ, is the basis for my believing all that Jesus has said. My believing that there is an infallible Church with ability to teach infallibly is based on my believing all that Jesus said. That is my basis.

Best,
Mark

M. Jay Bennett said...

Do you believe you believe Jesus is the Son of God because you discovered it by means of historical inquiry alone?

Mark said...

No. I believe that the part known by historical inquiry is that there was a man named Jesus who lived 2000 years ago and He claimed to be God- this is known by historical inquiry. NOW, by faith, I know that Jesus is God- this part is not historical inquiry.

Besides historical inquiry, I do not need any other proof that a man named Jesus existed and that He claimed to be God. Even the atheist can know that there existed a man named Jesus who claimed to be God- in the same way that they can know that a man named Abraham Lincoln existed and this man regraded himself as the president.

Best,
Mark

M. Jay Bennett said...

Where is the testimony of Scripture in your historical inquiry?

Mark said...

I don't know what you mean by, 'testimony of Scripture'.

All I'm saying is that the Bible is a good reliable historical document, and so we have good reason to believe (without the need of theological faith) that there was a man named Jesus who claimed to be God and said certain things. Even the person who has no faith should not deny that there existed a man named Jesus who claimed to God.

Now, I put my faith in Jesus and all He said. Now, I believe all that He has said (by faith). This is why I believe that He established One Church. The atheist can look at the Bible and learn that there existed a man named Jesus who said an assortment of things which, when considered, show that He (Jesus) believed Himself to be establishing One Church with teaching authority. Though, he (the atheist) does not believe that Jesus is God, and therefore does not think that Jesus has the ability or authority to keep such promises.

So, am I correct in my understanding that you think that a person's knowing the correctness of the Church's historical decision (to regard some books as divinely inspired while rejecting other books) depends in each individual case upon a personal testimony of the Holy Spirit? If this is what you think, then WHY do you think this is true?

Best,
Mark

M. Jay Bennett said...

I believe the Bible is self-authenticating. The church (i.e. all who are effectually called to saving faith in Jesus), recognizes its authority as such.

Why did you put your faith in Jesus? Why not Mohammed? His historical credentials are at least as good.

Mark said...

I don't think Mohammed's historical credentials are as good. We can discuss this, though I think it's not the most interesting question. However, I'd be willing to discuss this.

WHY do you think Scripture is self-authenticating? The truth of the proposition- 'Scripture is self-authenticating'- is this a proposition whose truth you have learned through revelation, reason, or experience?

Happy New Years, and say a prayer for me.

Best,
Mark

M. Jay Bennett said...

The doctrine of the self-authentication of Scripture is by definition tautological. There is no higher authority on which Scripture's authority is based. It is the word of God. This is the point of my post. As I wrote:

"Roman Catholicism posits epistemological religious certainty in an essentially perspicuous and self-authenticating Apostolic office (i.e. the Roman see). Reformed Catholicism posits epistemological religious certainty in an essentially perspicuous and self-authenticating Apostolic teaching (i.e. the completed canon of Scripture)."

M. Jay Bennett said...

I will pray for you Mark. Did you have a particular issue in mind? If so, and you'd rather not publicize it, feel free to email me at jybnntt@gmail.com