Solo Scriptura, Sola Scriptura, and the Question of Interpretive Authority
By Bryan Cross
According to Keith Mathison, over the last one hundred and fifty years Evangelicalism has replaced sola scriptura, according to which Scripture is the only infallible ecclesial authority, with solo scriptura, the notion that Scripture is the only ecclesial authority. The direct implication of solo scriptura is that each person is his own ultimate interpretive authority.
Solo scriptura is, according to Mathison, an unbiblical position; proponents of sola scriptura should uphold the claim that Scripture is the only infallible authority, but should repudiate any position according to which individual Christians are the ultimate arbiters of Scriptural truth. In this article we argue that there is no principled difference between sola scriptura and solo scriptura with respect to the holder of ultimate interpretive authority, and that a return to apostolic succession is the only way to avoid the untoward consequences to which both solo scriptura and sola scriptura lead.
Sola scriptura is arguably the most foundational point of disagreement underlying the nearly five-hundred year rift between Catholic and Protestant Christians. The Catholic Encyclopedia identifies sola scriptura, alongside sola fide and the ministerial priesthood of all believers, as one of the three fundamental principles of Protestantism; and nineteenth century Church historian Philip Schaff, in agreement with many Protestant thinkers, describes sola scriptura as the “formal principle” of Protestant theology.1 The doctrine may be viewed as a “dangerous idea” by some, or as an exhilarating and liberating one by others.2 But there can be little doubt that sola scriptura is an essential component of historic Protestant theology, and that it is crucial to the justifiability of the sixteenth-century schism and the perpetuation of this schism today.
Catholic critics of sola scriptura have argued that sola scriptura is essentially a denial of ecclesial authority, and hence that sola scriptura necessarily leads to a fragmentation in which each person interprets Scripture as seems right in his own eyes. In this way, they argue, sola scriptura is largely responsible not only for the separation of Protestants from the Catholic Church, but also for the vast number of schisms between Protestants. But a relatively recent book has given Protestants a way of replying to these criticisms, by seeking to accommodate the Catholic critics’ legitimate concerns while simultaneously repudiating their vision of the relation between Scripture and Tradition. That book is titled The Shape of Sola Scriptura, by Keith A. Mathison, the associate editor of Tabletalk.
In his book, Mathison distinguishes between sola scriptura, which he claims to have been the belief of the early confessional Protestants, and what he calls solo scriptura, which Mathison believes is a deviation of the last one hundred and fifty years from the belief and teaching of the early confessional Protestants. As a result of Mathison’s book, in our experience, Protestants now more commonly respond to Catholic arguments against sola scriptura by claiming that these are arguments against solo scriptura, not against sola scriptura. In other words, the common Protestant response to the Catholic critique of sola scriptura is that the Catholic argument aimed at sola scriptura criticizes a straw man, critiquing solo scriptura instead of sola scriptura.
We understand and appreciate the prima facie significance of the distinction Mathison wishes to draw between solo and sola scriptura. However, as we shall argue below, there is no principled difference between sola scriptura and solo scriptura with respect to the locus of “ultimate interpretive authority:” sola scriptura, no less than solo scriptura, entails that the individual Christian is the ultimate arbiter of the right interpretation of Scripture. This implies that what Mathison calls ’solo scriptura‘ is in fact a more clearly distilled manifestation over time of the true nature of sola scriptura. Moreover, we shall show that the only way to avoid the solo/sola position (and the unbiblical consequences to which it leads) is by way of apostolic succession.
The overall structure of our article is as follows. In the second section we present an overview of Mathison’s account of solo scriptura, explaining exactly what he believes to be wrong with solo scriptura. In the third section we present Mathison’s explanation of sola scriptura, and describe the putative contrast between solo scriptura and sola scriptura. In section four we show why there is no principled distinction between sola scriptura and solo scriptura. In section five we consider some objections to our argument, and show why they do not refute our argument. Finally, in section six we lay out a few noteworthy implications of our argument, including the implication that all the criticisms Mathison levels at solo scriptura apply equally to sola scriptura.
II. Description of Solo Scriptura and What Is Wrong with It, According to Mathison
In his book and his related article, Keith Mathison criticizes the position he calls ’solo scriptura,‘ namely, the position that “Scripture [is] not merely the only infallible authority but that it [is] the only authority altogether.”3 He describes the solo scriptura position as rejecting altogether even “the true but subordinate authority of the church and the regula fidei“ (i.e., the “rule of faith”).4 Mathison admirably demonstrates various significant problems with solo scriptura, including a hermeneutical problem, a set of historical problems, and a Scriptural problem. Because we agree substantially with Mathison’s critique of solo scriptura, we shall present his criticisms with scant commentary before turning our attention to his account of sola scriptura.
Hermeneutical Problem with Solo Scriptura
Mathison begins his criticism of solo scriptura by pointing his readers to the widespread “hermeneutical chaos and anarchy” caused by the existence of conflicting interpretations of Scripture. Why is this “hermeneuetical chaos” a problem? One primary reason, according to Mathison, is that the divisions and disagreements between Christians undermine the credibility of Christians and the gospel. He writes:
One of the most obvious facts facing any intelligent person who has been a Christian for more than a few days is the reality of multitudes of conflicting interpretations of Scripture. . . .
Is there any way to ever resolve the hermeneutical chaos and anarchy that exists within the Protestant church largely as a result of its adoption of radical individualism? Most Protestants do not seem to have taken this question seriously enough if they have considered it at all. If we proclaim to the unbelieving world that we have the one true and final revelation from God, why should they listen to us if we cannot agree about what that revelation actually says? Jesus prayed for the disciples that they would be one (John 17:21a). And why did He pray for this unity? He tells us the reason, “that the world may believe that You sent me” (17:21b). The world is supposed to be hearing the Church preach the gospel of Christ, but the world is instead hearing an endless cacophony of conflicting and contradictory assertions by those who claim to be the Church of Christ. This is the heart of the hermeneutical problem we face in the Church today.5
The fact of so many different conflicting interpretations dims the light of the gospel to the world.6 This “cacophony of conflicting and contradictory assertions” leaves even the Christian bewildered and uncertain, groping about to find the way, the truth and the life of Christ and His gospel. Mathison writes:
Almost every Christian who has wrestled with theological questions has encountered the problem of competing interpretations of Scripture. . . . Each man will claim that the other is in error, but by what ultimate authority do they typically make such a judgment? Each man will claim that he bases his judgment on the authority of the Bible, but since each man’s interpretation is mutually exclusive of the other’s, both interpretations cannot be correct. How then do we discern which interpretation is correct?7
The cause of this hermeneutical chaos, according to Mathison, is solo scriptura. Solo scriptura creates this hermeneutical chaos because it leaves no interpretive authority by which interpretive disputes may be definitively resolved. He writes:
The typical modern Evangelical solution to this problem is to tell the inquirer to examine the arguments on both sides and decide which of them is closest to the teaching of Scripture. He is told that this is what sola scriptura means-–to individually evaluate all doctrines according to the only authority, the Scripture. Yet in reality, all that occurs is that one Christian measures the scriptural interpretations of other Christians against the standard of his own scriptural interpretation. Rather than placing the final authority in Scripture as it intends to do, this concept of Scripture places the final authority in the reason and judgment of each individual believer. The result is the relativism, subjectivism, and theological chaos that we see in modern Evangelicalism today.8
According to Mathison, then, when each person is deciding for himself what is the correct interpretation of Scripture, Scripture is no longer functioning as the final authority. Rather, each individual’s own reason and judgment becomes, as it were, the highest authority, supplanting in effect Scripture’s unique and rightful place. Can we avoid this result simply by letting Scripture interpret itself? According to Mathison, the answer is no:
All appeals to Scripture are appeals to interpretations of Scripture. The only real question is: whose interpretation? People with differing interpretations of Scripture cannot set a Bible on a table and ask it to resolve their differences. In order for the Scripture to function as an authority, it must be read and interpreted by someone. According to “solo” Scriptura, that someone is each individual, so ultimately, there are as many final authorities as there are human interpreters.9
This is a fundamental insight. All appeals to Scripture are appeals to interpretations of Scripture. But, according to Mathison, adherents of solo scriptura have not realized that all appeals to Scripture are in fact appeals to interpretations of Scripture. Because they fail to appreciate this fact, Mathison charges that:
Ultimately the interpretation of Scripture becomes individualistic with no possibility for the resolution of differences. This occurs because adherents of solo scriptura rip the Scripture out of its ecclesiastical and traditional hermeneutical context, leaving it in a relativistic vacuum. The problem is that there are differing interpretations of Scripture, and Christians are told that these can be resolved by a simple appeal to Scripture. . . . The problem that adherents of solo scriptura haven’t noticed is that any appeal to Scripture is an appeal to an interpretation of Scripture. The only question is: whose interpretation? When we are faced with conflicting interpretations of Scripture, we cannot set a Bible on a table and ask it to resolve our difference of opinion as if it were a Ouija board. In order for Scripture to serve as an authority at all, it must be read, exegeted, and interpreted by somebody.10
Because Scripture must be interpreted, and because Scripture cannot interpret itself by itself, it follows that some person or persons must interpret Scripture if Scripture is to function as an authority. Otherwise, irreconcilable hermeneutical disputes can only end in division, as each faction has no recourse but to separate. And these divisions are contrary to the will of Christ who prays in John 17 that all His followers would be one, so that the world would see that the Father sent the Son. These divisions are also contrary to the command of the Apostle Paul, who exhorts us that there be no divisions among us.11 According to Mathison, the false assumption among advocates of solo scriptura is that the individual Christian can somehow bypass the interpretive process, resolving these hermeneutical disputes by a “simple appeal to Scripture.” But that does not resolve the dispute, as Mathison rightly notes, precisely because each disagreeing party is in actuality appealing to his own interpretation of Scripture. And hermeneutical disputes cannot be resolved so long as the disputing parties deny that hermeneutics is involved. So the necessity of interpretation leads us to the obvious question: “Whose interpretation should be given the final say?”
To this question Mathison responds forthrightly, “the Church.” And naturally, our dispute with Mathison on this point does not center upon his answer (”the Church”), so much as the referent he assigns to that term, and the basis for its being the referent of that term, as we shall discuss below. First, however, we explain why Mathison contends that solo scriptura is not only false, inasmuch as it fails to align with the Biblical pattern and example, but is also pernicious.
According to Mathison, when Christians do not follow the authoritative guidance of the Church in their interpretation of Scripture, not only do they fall into various kinds of errors, but Scripture itself, as he shows by various examples, necessarily ceases to function as their authority. In one example, he refers to Reformed theologian Robert Reymond’s call for “an abandonment of the Nicene Trinitarian concept in favor of a different Trinitarian concept,” referring to Reymond’s rejection of the Nicene Creed’s teaching that Christ is eternally begotten.12 According to Mathison, this shows that for proponents of solo scriptura the Nicene Creed has no real authority.13
Mathison also refers to Edward Fudge, who defends annihilationism, as another example of someone operating according to solo scriptura. Fudge claims that Scripture “is the only unquestionable or binding source of doctrine on this or any subject.”14 The fact that annihilationism is heterodox does not deter him; he believes that his own interpretation of Scripture is correct on this matter, and that here the Church has been wrong. In addition to these examples, Mathison identifies Ed Stevens, who defends hyperpreterism, as another proponent of solo scriptura. Mathison quotes Stevens as writing:
Even if the creeds were to clearly and definitively stand against the preterist view (which they don’t), it would not be an overwhelming problem since they have no real authority anyway. They are no more authoritative than our best opinions today, but they are valued because of their antiquity. . . . We must not take the creeds any more seriously than we do the writings and opinions of men like Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, the Westminster Assembly, Campbell, Rushdoony, or C.S. Lewis.15
Referring to this quotation, Mathison writes:
Here we see the clear rejection of scripturally based structures of authority. The authority of those who rule in the Church is rejected by placing the decisions of an ecumenical council of ministers on the same level as the words of any individual. This is certainly the democratic way of doing things, and it is as American as apple pie, but it is not Christian. . . . If this doctrine of solo scriptura and all that it entails is true, then the Church has no more right or authority to declare Arianism a heresy than Cornelius Van Til would have to authoritatively declare classical apologetics a heresy. Orthodoxy and heresy would necessarily be an individualistic and subjective determination.16
The fundamental problem in each of these three examples, according to Mathison, is that the individual is failing to recognize the secondary authority of the Church and of the creeds. The result of making the individual the final interpretive authority, and not recognizing the interpretive authority of the Church, argues Mathison, is that the authority of Scripture is destroyed:
The adherents of solo scriptura dismiss all of this claiming that the reason and conscience of the individual believer is the supreme interpreter. Yet this results in nothing more than hermeneutical solipsism. It renders the universal and objective truth of Scripture virtually useless because instead of the Church proclaiming with one voice to the world what the Scripture teaches, every individual interprets Scripture as seems right in his own eyes. The unbelieving world is left hearing a cacophony of conflicting voices rather than the Word of the living God.17
Mathison’s point is that when individuals take Scripture out of its ecclesial context, and treat themselves as the ultimate or highest interpretive authorities, the practical authority of Scripture is effectively destroyed. Scripture can function as an objective authority only when interpreted in and by the Church.18
When each individual acts as his own ultimate interpretive authority, the result, argues Mathison, is a kind of de facto relativism. One person thinks a passage means one thing; another person claims that the same passage means something else. But without a divinely established interpretive authority to adjudicate the dispute, the practical result is that the meaning of Scripture is reduced to “what it means to me.” There is no one with interpretive authority to say, “That’s not what it means.” Rather, without interpretive authority the objector’s disagreement with another’s interpretation amounts to, “That’s not what it means to me.” To this the first person understandably replies, “I understand that that’s not what it means to you, but that’s what it means to me.” And this situation is a form of practical relativism. In this way, argues Mathison, solo scriptura “destroys” the authority of Scripture.19
Historical Problems with Solo Scriptura
According to Mathison, not only is there a hermeneutical problem with solo scriptura, there are also historical problems. The primary historical problem is that solo scriptura was not the position of the early Church or the medieval Church.20 The early Christians, not only layman but even presbyters and bishops, did not resolve theological disputes by taking to themselves ultimate interpretive authority.21 The historical position, according to Mathison, is for a synod of bishops to address the matter with an authoritative decision. On this point Mathison quotes John Calvin, who wrote:
We indeed willingly concede, if any discussion arises over doctrine, that the best and surest remedy is for a synod of true bishops to be convened, where the doctrine at issue may be examined.22
Mathison defends this position by pointing out that the Apostles provide an example of meeting in council (Acts 15:6-29) to resolve a question or dispute.
Another historical problem entailed by solo scriptura, according to Mathison, is that if the Church had no authority, then we would not have any certainty regarding the canon of Scripture.23 According to Mathison, solo scriptura thus leads to a “fundamental self-contradiction” in the solo scriptura position.24 The contradiction is that proponents of solo scriptura appeal to Scripture as their only authority, yet without the authority of the Church they would not know with certainty which books belong to the canon of Scripture. In this way, argues Mathison, supporters of solo scriptura could not adequately respond to a modern-day Marcion who challenged the canon of Scripture, because they could not appeal to any authority to establish or confirm the canon.25
A third historical problem is the multiplication of schisms, which Mathison largely attributes to solo scriptura. He writes:
The Christian Church today is split into literally tens of thousands of denominations with hundreds of new divisions arising daily. Much of the responsibility for this divisiveness rests with the doctrine of solo scriptura. When each individual’s conscience becomes the final authority for that individual, differences of opinion will occur. When men feel strongly enough about their individual interpretations, they separate from those they believe to be in error. In the world today, we have millions of believers and churches convinced of thousands of mutually contradictory doctrines, and all of them claim to base their beliefs on the authority of Scripture alone.
Not only has solo scriptura contributed heavily to this division and sectarianism, it can offer no possible solution. Solo scriptura is the ecclesiastical equivalent of a nation with a constitution but no court of law to interpret that constitution. Both can lead to chaos. . . . But using Scripture alone, it cannot tell us what “Scripture” is or what it means. It simply cannot resolve differences of interpretation, and the result is more and more division and schism. The resolution of theological differences requires the possibility of authoritatively defining the propositional doctrinal content of Christianity, and it requires the possibility of an authoritative ecclesiastical “Supreme Court.” Since neither of those possibilities are allowed within the framework of solo scriptura, there can be no possibility of resolution.26
As Catholics, we do not believe that Christ’s Church is split, because we believe that unity is one of the four essential marks of the Church specified by the Nicene Creed, and that since Christ cannot be divided, therefore Christ’s Body, the Church, cannot be divided. Any persistent schism therefore involves schism from the Church. 27 But, we do agree with Mathison that non-Catholic Christians are split into thousands of denominations, and that these divisions are primarily the result of each individual treating himself as his own final interpretive authority.
A fourth historical problem resulting from solo scriptura, according to Mathison, is that it destroys the historic Christian faith by denying the ecclesial authority by which certain doctrines were definitively determined at particular times in the history of the Church to be orthodox and essential, and other doctrines definitively determined to be heretical. By rejecting the authority of the Church, solo scriptura reduces the authority of the ecumenical councils and creeds to that of the opinion of any individual Christian, and thus eliminates the possibility of an objective Christianity handed down to us through history.28
In that respect, rejecting the authority of the Church, according to Mathison, has devastating consequences for Christianity, because it eliminates the creeds, and thereby eliminates the historic Christian faith as an objective reality.
If the ecumenical creeds have no real authority, then it cannot be of any major consequence if a person decides to reject some or all of the doctrines of these creeds-–including the Trinity and the deity of Christ. If the individual judges the Trinity to be an unbiblical doctrine, then for him it is false. No other authority exists to correct him outside of his own interpretation of Scripture. This is precisely why solo scriptura inevitably results in radical relativism and subjectivity. Each man decides for himself what the essential doctrines of Christianity are, each man creates his own creed from scratch, and concepts such as orthodoxy and heresy become completely obsolete. The concept of Christianity itself becomes obsolete because it no longer has any meaningful objective definition. Since solo scriptura has no means by which Scripture’s propositional doctrinal content may be authoritatively defined (such definition necessarily entails the unacceptable creation of an authoritative ecumenical creed), its propositional content can only be subjectively defined by each individual. One individual may consider the Trinity essential, another may consider it a pagan idea imported into Christianity. Without an authoritatively defined statement of Christianity’s propositional doctrinal content, neither individual can definitively and finally be declared wrong. Solo scriptura destroys this possibility, and thereby destroys the possibility of Christianity being a meaningful concept. Instead, by reducing Christianity to relativism and subjectivity, it reduces Christianity to irrationalism and ultimately nonsense.29
Here again, Mathison is quite right. Denying the authority of the Church, by treating oneself as having greater interpretive authority than the Church, destroys the Christian faith for the very reasons Mathison so aptly explains. The content of the deposit of faith then becomes like a silver dollar hidden among a sea of silver dollars; there is no principled way of distinguishing it from the myriad of contending theological opinions. This is not the situation that Christ the Good Shepherd would have handed on to His sheep. But the problem here is not merely that the deposit of faith becomes murky and inscrutable. According to Mathison,
Solo scriptura results in the autonomy of the individual believer who becomes a law unto himself. Scripture is interpreted according to the conscience and reason of the individual. Everything is evaluated according to the final standard of the individual’s opinion of what is and is not scriptural. The individual, not Scripture, is the real final authority according to solo scriptura. This is rebellious autonomy, and it is a usurpation of the prerogatives of God.
Adherents of solo scriptura have not understood that “Scripture alone” doesn’t mean “me alone.” The Bible nowhere gives any hint of wanting every individual believer to decide for himself and by himself what is and is not the true meaning of Scripture.30
By rejecting the interpretive authority of the Church, the individual makes himself autonomous. He might not think of himself as being autonomous or rebellious; he most likely thinks of himself as following God, by following [his own interpretation of] God’s Word as contained in Sacred Scripture. But by disregarding the divinely established interpretive authority of the Church, the individual usurps to himself an authority that Christ entrusted to the Church. This is why, according to Mathison, taking final interpretive authority to oneself makes the individual guilty of “rebellious autonomy.”31
Solo Scriptura is Unbiblical
Mathison argues that the solo scriptura position is unbiblical. He writes:
The Bible itself simply does not teach “solo” Scriptura. Christ established his church with a structure of authority and gives to his church those who are specially appointed to the ministry of the word (Acts 6:2-4). When disputes arose, the apostles did not instruct each individual believer to go home and decide by himself and for himself who was right. They met in a council (Acts 15:6-29).32
Scripture itself indicates that the Scriptures are the possession of the Church and that the interpretation of the Scriptures belongs to the Church as a whole, as a community. In particular it has been entrusted to specially gifted men. … The fundamental point is that Christ established His Church with a structure of authority that is to be obeyed (Heb. 13:7). … The modern Evangelical doctrine of Scripture essentially destroys the real authority of ministers of the Word and the Church as a whole.33
According to Mathison, Scripture itself teaches that Scripture belongs to the Church and is to be interpreted in and by the Church. Importantly, he is not here speaking of an invisible Church. He is saying that Scripture teaches that Christ founded a visible Church, with a visible authority structure composed of ordained men entrusted with the responsibility of expositing and interpreting the Scriptures. Scripture itself, according to Mathison, teaches that these men are to be obeyed.34 Because solo scriptura denies the interpretive authority of the Church, claims Mathison, therefore solo scriptura is contrary to Scripture.
III. Mathison on Sola Scriptura, and How It Differs from Solo Scriptura
In contrast to the ‘solo scriptura‘ position, Mathison defends what he calls ‘sola scriptura,’ namely, the position that “Scripture [is] the sole source of revelation; that it [is] the final authoritative norm of doctrine and practice; that it [is] to be interpreted in and by the church, and that it [is] to be interpreted according to the regula fidei.”35 Notice that for Mathison these four claims together constitute sola scriptura. Mathison is emphatic that sola scriptura is not the notion that Scripture is the only ecclesial authority. In this respect sola scriptura differs from solo scriptura. He writes:
It is important to notice that sola scriptura, properly understood, is not a claim that Scripture is the only authority altogether. … There are other real authorities which are subordinate and derivative in nature. Scripture, however, is the only inspired and inherently infallible norm, and therefore Scripture is the only final authoritative norm.36
As mentioned above, he approvingly quotes Calvin proposing that doctrinal disputes be resolved by recourse to synods and councils.37 And Mathison defends this position by pointing out that the Apostles provide an example of meeting in council (Acts 15:6-29) to resolve a question.
According to Mathison, Scripture must be interpreted in and by the Church:
Scripture does not exist in a vacuum. It was and is given to the Church within the doctrinal context of the apostolic gospel. Scripture alone is the only final standard, but it is a final standard that must be utilized, interpreted, and preached by the Church within its Christian context. If Scripture is not interpreted correctly within its proper context, it ceases to function properly as a standard.38
It is therefore to the Church that we must turn for the true interpretation of the Scripture, for it is in the Church that the gospel is found. … Although individuals can and must read and study Scripture in order that their conscience may ultimately be bound by the Word of God, final ecclesiastical authority does not and cannot rest in the judgment of each individual member of the Church. … Individual private judgment, however, does not replace the corporate judgment of the covenant community. The creeds of the Church are the authoritative confessions of the communion of saints as the covenantal body of Christ. Excommunication is an authoritative judgment of the communion of saints as the covenantal body of Christ.39
But sola scriptura does not mean only that Scripture must be interpreted in and by the Church. According to Mathison sola scriptura also means that Scripture is the final authoritative standard. He writes:
Scripture alone, therefore, can function as the “canon,” the rule, the final authoritative standard of truth against which all else is measured. Yes, it is the Church which does the measuring, and yes the rule of faith provides the basic parameters of measurement, but it is the Scripture and Scripture alone that is the standard norm.40
An essential aspect of sola scriptura is that it affirms the infallibility of Scripture, and denies the infallibility of the Church. For this reason, according to Mathison, the Church, being fallible, is corrected by Scripture and subordinate to Scripture. He writes:
Because of the Church’s propensity to wander from the true path, she needs a standard of truth that remains constant and sure, and that standard cannot be herself. It can only be the inspired and infallible Scripture.41
For Mathison, then, sola scriptura ascribes the highest ecclesial authority to Scripture, and ascribes subordinate ecclesial authority to the Church and the creeds. The individual believer is to be subject both to the primary authority of Scripture and to the secondary authority of the Church and creeds. The primacy of the Scripture’s authority, according to Mathison, does not nullify the genuine secondary authority of the Church.42
But this does raise a difficult question. If the Church has higher interpretive authority than does the individual, what is the individual to do when he or she disagrees with the Church’s decision regarding what Scripture teaches? In other words, what is the relationship between private judgment and the Church’s interpretive authority? Mathison answers this question by appealing to Francis Turretin.
As Turretin explains, although the corporate doctrinal judgment of the Church is not infallible and does not have an authority equal to that of Scripture, it does have true authority over those who are members of the visible communion of the Church. What then is the relationship between private judgment and this corporate judgment? What is an individual Christian to do if he believes the corporate judgment found in the creeds and confessions to be in error? Turretin explains,
“Hence if they think they observe anything in them worthy of correction, they ought to undertake nothing rashly or disorderly and unseasonably, so as to violently rend the body of their mother (which schismatics do), but to refer the difficulties they feel to their church and either to prefer her public opinion to their own private judgment or to secede from her communion, if the conscience cannot acquiesce in her judgment. Thus they cannot bind in the inner court of conscience, except inasmuch as they are found to agree with the word of God (which alone has the power to bind the conscience).”43
According to Turretin, the individual Christian should submit to the Church’s teaching and interpretation, except when his conscience, ultimately informed by his own interpretation of Scripture, cannot accept what the Church says. Mathison adds,
There is a difference then between the external ecclesiastical court and the internal court of conscience. The inward court of the individual conscience cannot be bound by anything other than the Word of God, but the Church does have doctrinal authority in the external ecclesiastical court. This authority is given to preserve unity in the Church’s faith and to reject the errors of heretics.44
Mathison maintains that the only authority that can bind the conscience is the Word of God. So when the Church teaches something that is incompatible with one’s conscience, as informed by one’s own interpretation of Scripture, one should reject the Church’s teaching and follow one’s own conscience. We can summarize Mathison’s explanation of the distinction between solo scriptura and sola scriptura as follows. Whereas solo scriptura rejects the interpretive authority of the Church and the derivative authority of the creeds, sola scriptura affirms the interpretive authority of the Church and the derivative authority of the creeds, except when they teach something contrary to one’s conscience, as informed by one’s own interpretation of Scripture.
IV. Why There Is No Principled Difference Between Sola Scriptura and Solo Scriptura
A. Direct and Indirect Ultimate Interpretive Authority
What makes the solo scriptura position problematic, according to Mathison, is not its high view of Scripture, but its presumption that the individual has higher interpretive authority than does the Church. Solo scriptura treats the individual as having the ultimate or final interpretive authority regarding whatever matters he or she considers to be theologically essential or important. That is precisely why solo scriptura leads to the situations Mathison describes in his book. Robert Reymond can reject one line of the Creed because he sees himself as having at least equal interpretive and magisterial (i.e. teaching) authority to the bishops who gathered at Nicea in AD 325 to formulate the Creed. If Reymond believed that those bishops had greater interpretive and magisterial authority than himself, he would treat the Creed as a corrective to his own interpretation and position, in whatever areas his interpretation and position was at odds with that of the Creed.
But there are two ways to make oneself one’s own ultimate interpretive and magisterial authority. One is a direct way and the other is an indirect way. The direct way is to subject all theological questions directly to the final verdict of one’s own interpretation of Scripture. That is the solo scriptura position. Because it is direct, the nature of the position is quite transparent; we can see clearly in such a case that the individual is acting as his own ultimate interpretive authority.
The indirect way of making oneself one’s own ultimate interpretive and magisterial authority is more complicated and subtle. In this case the individual, based upon his own interpretation of Scripture, either establishes or chooses an ecclesial community that conforms to his own interpretation in matters he considers to be essential or important. Then, he ’submits’ to this institution so long as it continues to speak and act in accordance with his own interpretation of Scripture. If it deviates from his own interpretation of Scripture in matters he deems important, he repeats the process of either establishing or choosing an institution or congregation that conforms to his own interpretation in matters he considers to be essential or important.
In both the direct and indirect ways, the individual is acting as his own ultimate interpretive and magisterial authority. But his doing so is more difficult to see in the indirect case because he appears to be submitting to the interpretive authority of a body of persons other than himself. Yet, because he has established or selected this body of persons on the basis of their conformity to his own interpretation of Scripture, and because he ’submits’ to them only so long as they agree with his interpretation on matters he considers to be essential or important, therefore in actuality his ’submission’ to this body is in fact ’submission’ to himself. To submit to others only when one agrees with them, is to submit to oneself. But submission to oneself is an oxymoron, because it is indistinguishable from not submitting at all, from doing whatever one wants. Yet because this indirect way of being one’s own ultimate interpretive and magisterial authority maintains the appearance of being in submission to another body of persons, it allows those who practice it to believe falsely that they are genuinely submitting to another body of persons, and not acting as their own ultimate interpretive and magisterial authority. Accumulating for themselves this body of persons to whom they ’submit’ allows them to remain under a delusion that they are submitting to the Church.45
Solo scriptura is the direct way of acting as one’s own ultimate interpretive and magisterial authority. But as we show below, the indirect way of acting as one’s own ultimate interpretive and magisterial authority is precisely the methodology entailed by sola scriptura. Here’s why. In Mathison’s account of sola scriptura, Scripture must be interpreted “in and by the church.” He even says that we must turn to the Church for the true interpretation of Scripture, “for it is in the Church that the gospel is found.”46 Notice that Mathison claims that it is in the Church that the gospel is found.
But how does he determine what is the Church? Being Reformed, he defines ‘Church’ as wherever the gospel is found, because the early Protestants defined the marks of the Church as including “the gospel,” where the gospel was determined by their own private interpretation of Scripture. So he claims that is in the Church that the gospel is found, but he defines the Church in terms of the gospel. This is what we call a tautology. It is a form of circular reasoning that allow anyone to claim to be the Church and have the gospel. One can read the Bible and formulate one’s own understanding of the gospel, then make this “gospel” a necessary mark of the Church, and then say that it is in the Church that the gospel is found. Because one has defined the Church in terms of the gospel [as arrived at by one's own interpretation of Scripture], telling us that the gospel is found “in the Church” tells us nothing other than “people who share my own interpretation of Scripture about what is the gospel are referred to by me as ‘the Church.’” This kind of circular reasoning allows falsehood to remain hidden.
The Catholic position does not suffer from this circularity, because ‘Church’ is not defined in terms of “gospel,” but in terms of apostolic succession, involving an unbroken line of authorizations extending down from the Apostles. Just as Christ authorized and sent the Apostles to preach and teach in His Name, and govern His Church, so the Apostles, by the laying on of their hands, appointed bishops as their successors, and by this mystery handed on to them the divine authority to preach and teach and govern the Church. And these men also, in the same way authorized other men to succeed them to preach and teach the gospel and govern Christ’s Church. Only those having the succession from the Apostles are divinely authorized to preach and teach and govern Christ’s Church. For that reason, the Church is defined not by the gospel (as determined by one’s own interpretation of Scripture). Rather, the content of the gospel is specified by the Church, and the Church is located by the succession from the Apostles. This is why apostolicity is one of the four marks of the Church taught in the Creed: “we believe one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.” But given Mathison’s account, what counts as ‘church’ is always and ultimately up to each individual to decide on the basis of his or her own determination of the gospel, on the basis of his or her own interpretation of Scripture. So on Mathison’s account, no one has any more authority than anyone else to say definitively what is the Church and where is the Church, and what is her doctrine and what is not her doctrine.
That can be seen in the very events of the Protestant Reformation. The first Protestants did not submit their interpretations of Scripture to the judgment of the Catholic Church in which they had each been baptized and raised. Rather, the first Protestants appealed to their own interpretation of Scripture to judge the Church to be apostate, and thus justify separating from her. They did this by redefining the marks of the Church. The first generation of Protestants, without any authorization from their bishops, appealed to their own interpretation of Scripture to determine three (or two) new “marks of the Church,” beyond the four marks given twelve hundred years earlier in the Nicene Creed. These new marks consisted of: (1) the preaching of the gospel (or ’sound doctrine’), where what counts as ‘gospel’ and ’sound doctrine’ was determined according to their own interpretation of Scripture, (2) the proper administration of the sacraments, where what counts as a sacrament and what is its proper administration were determined again by their own interpretation of Scripture, and (3) the right exercise of church discipline, again, as determined by their own interpretation of Scripture.47 By these new marks derived from their own interpretation of Scripture, they determined that the Catholic Church governed by the successor of the Apostle Peter had become apostate, and thus that the Catholic bishops under whose authority they lived, had no ecclesial authority, and that they themselves [i.e. these first Protestants] were the continuation of the Church.
In this way they could seem to affirm devoutly the prohibition against spurning the authority of the Church, as Calvin did when he wrote:
However it may be, where the preaching of the gospel is reverently heard and the sacraments are not neglected, there for the time being no deceitful or ambiguous form of the church is seen; and no one is permitted to spurn its authority, flout its warnings, resist its counsels, or make light of its chastisements — much less to desert it and break its unity. For the Lord esteems the communion of his church so highly that he counts as a traitor and apostate from Christianity anyone who arrogantly leaves any Christian society, provided it cherishes the true meaning of Word and sacraments.48
How did Calvin, who was baptized in the Catholic Church as an infant, and yet lived the last thirty or so years of his life in separation from the Catholic Church, avoid believing that he was spurning the authority of the Church? Simply by redefining the Church as “wherever the preaching of the gospel [as determined by Calvin's own interpretation of Scripture] is heard and the sacraments [as determined by Calvin's own interpretation of Scripture] are not neglected.”
The early Protestants appealed to their own interpretation of Scripture to make sola fide the sine qua non of the gospel, and appealed to their own interpretation of Scripture to make “the gospel” a new mark of the Church. In thus stipulating that sola fide was a now a mark of the Church, based on their own interpretation of Scripture and without any authorization from their bishops, the Reformers ‘avoided rebelling’ against their Catholic bishops simply by redefining ‘Church’ to match their own interpretation of Scripture, so that, by this redefinition of the ‘Church,’ their Catholic bishops were no longer even members of the Church. In doing so, these first Protestants placed their own interpretive authority above that of their bishops. For this reason, the assumption that final interpretive and teaching authority belongs to oneself is intrinsic to Protestantism, because to subordinate the individual’s interpretive and teaching authority to that of the Church would undermine the act by which the first Protestants separated from the Catholic Church in the sixteenth century, and thus undermine the very legitimacy of Protestantism as such.
Our point here is not to show which side was right and which side was wrong in the sixteenth century schism. Our point is to show that implicit within the claim by proponents of sola scriptura to be submitting to the Church, is always a prior judgment concerning which body of persons count as the Church, and a theological assumption about how that judgment is to be made. Mathison cannot say, “All Christians should submit to the Church’s determination of the marks of the Church,” because such a claim would beg the question, i.e. presume the very thing in question, by presuming the identity of the Church in determining the identity of the Church. At most he can say that all Christians should accept the three Protestant marks of the Church, on the ground that according to his [Mathison's] own interpretation of Scripture, these three are the marks of the Church. Mathison’s position does not allow the Church to have the definitive and authoritative interpretation and teaching of Scripture regarding the marks of the Church. Mathison’s position entails that the authoritative determination of the marks of the Church ultimately and perpetually rests with the individual.
No Middle Ground: Solo Scriptura or Apostolic Succession
This implication follows from Protestantism’s rejection of apostolic succession. Without apostolic succession, there is within Protestantism no group of persons already having divine authorization to provide the definitive decision regarding matters of doctrine and interpretation, including the marks of the Church. By granting a position in which each individual has the highest interpretive authority in determining the marks of the Church, Mathison leaves himself without a principled distinction between solo scriptura and sola scriptura, and thus his position is likewise open to the individualism and fragmentation that he rightly recognizes result from solo scriptura. Hence for this reason as well, sola scriptura reduces to solo scriptura.
The same point applies to determining which tradition is authoritative. Protestant theologian R. Scott Clark, in his book Covenant, Justification and Pastoral Ministry, claims that Christians should read Scripture through the eyes of the Reformed and Presbyterian standards, such as the Westminster Confession of Faith.49 The only available basis by which he can argue for this is that the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) matches his own interpretation of Scripture, and that of those who share his interpretation. Clark has no a priori ecclesial authority to which all Christians should submit. Nor can the individual Christian use the WCF as the standard by which to evaluate the WCF. Nor can he use the WCF in order to evaluate the other Protestant confessions, without begging the question. Thus, if one denies apostolic succession, then in order to determine whether Scripture should be interpreted according to the doctrinal framework specified by the WCF, the individual Christian must evaluate the WCF by comparing it to his own interpretation of Scripture. For this reason, without apostolic succession, the secondary ‘authority’ of a tradition or ’standard’ by which to interpret Scripture ultimately remains subordinate to the judgment of the individual, and thus retains only the illusory appearance of authority, not any actual authority.50
For the proponent of sola scriptura, if his interpretation of Scripture changes concerning what doctrines or practices constitute ’sound doctrine,’ or if the body of persons presently satisfying his determination of what counts as ‘Church’ makes a decision that is contrary to his own determination from Scripture of what is essential or important, then there is no reason for him to submit to them. By that very fact (i.e. change of this sort) they no longer satisfy his criteria for what is essential to the Church, just as the Catholic bishops were simply defined out of authority by the first Protestants. When that happens, the proponent of sola scriptura then establishes or chooses another body of persons that matches his current interpretation of Scripture, and ’submits’ to them, until he and this new body of persons sufficiently diverge in their determination of what counts as ’sound doctrine,’ proper administration of the sacraments, and right discipline. So the reason why there is no principled difference between solo scriptura and sola scriptura is that in both cases the individual is his own ultimate interpretive and magisterial authority: solo scriptura in a direct way, sola scriptura in an indirect way.
We can see then that there is no principled difference between sola scriptura and solo scriptura because given sola scriptura and the denial of apostolic succession, and thus given the equality in interpretive authority between the individual and the Magisterium, no Church council or promulgation of a dogma can bind the conscience of any individual. For any line in any creed or Church pronouncement, the individual may stand in judgment over it, just as the early Protestants stood in judgment of the decrees and canons of the Council of Trent (and other earlier ecumenical councils), based on their own interpretation of Scripture. As we saw above, Calvin seems to recognize the authority of Church councils, as when he wrote:
We indeed willingly concede, if any discussion arises over doctrine, that the best and surest remedy is for a synod of true bishops to be convened, where the doctrine at issue may be examined.51
But notice the term ‘true bishops.’ Without apostolic succession, what counts as a “true bishop” can only be “one who agrees with my interpretation of Scripture.” In other words, Calvin’s statement amounts to being willing to submit to a synod composed of bishops who agree with his own interpretation of Scripture. And there is no principled difference between this and solo scriptura; the former is solo scriptura masking itself from itself. ‘Submitting’ only to those with whom I agree, is merely a species of “submitting only when I agree,” which is itself an indirect form of “submitting only to me,” which is submitting only in semblance.
Calvin and the early Protestants rejected the decree of the Council of Trent regarding sola fide. They did so based on their prior determination, according to their own interpretation of Scripture, that sola fide was a mark of the Church. Because the Council of Trent denied justification by faith alone,52 the Council had not satisfied one of the Protestants’ own stipulated marks, and was therefore ipso facto not constituted of “true bishops,” and was ipso facto an invalid council.53
Since apart from apostolic succession the determination of ‘the gospel’ and ’sound doctrine’ rests ultimately and irrevocably on the individual’s own interpretation of Scripture in order to identify the Church, it follows that any particular line of any creed or Church decree becomes ‘authoritative’ only if the individual approves it as being sufficiently in agreement with his own interpretation of Scripture. If he judges it to be sufficiently contrary to his own interpretation of Scripture, and of sufficient import, then it ipso facto has no ‘authority’ over him. His disagreement with “the Church’s” interpretation of Scripture does not make his position heretical. It may very well be (according to his line of thought) that ‘the Church’ is heretical, and his own position is orthodox (and hence that he himself is the continuation of the actual Church, the rest being heretics). We may never know for sure this side of heaven. Thus ‘orthodoxy’ and ‘heresy’ are relativized by the rejection of apostolic succession. Because sola scriptura rejects apostolic succession no less than does solo scriptura, and because the rejection of apostolic succession entails the relativization of heresy and orthodoxy, there is also for this reason no principled difference between solo scriptura and sola scriptura.
That is because given sola scriptura and a denial of apostolic succession, the individual has final interpretive and teaching authority in determining what is the ‘gospel’ and what is ’sound doctrine,’ in order to determine who and what is the Church. If, however, apostolic succession is true, and the Church has final interpretive and teaching authority in determining what counts as the ‘gospel’ and ’sound doctrine,’ then the first Protestants were not justified in separating from the Catholic Church. They could attempt to justify separating from the Catholic Church only by appealing to their own interpretation of Scripture regarding the marks, and thus only by rejecting apostolic succession and presuming that they themselves had equal or greater interpretive authority than did those Catholic bishops under whose authority they had been placed at their baptism. For this reason sola scriptura can never grant final interpretive authority to the Church, without refuting itself. So even though sola scriptura creates the appearance of submitting to Church authority, with regard to ultimate interpretive authority there is no principled difference between sola scriptura and solo scriptura. In both solo scriptura and sola scriptura, the individual is and remains his own final interpretive and teaching authority.
In sum, Mathison thinks he is defending a position that is fundamentally distinct from solo scriptura, but in fact it is in essence the same position, only hidden within a personally selected practice and a personally selected people such that its true essence is concealed. This can be seen in Mathison’s description of sola scriptura. On the one hand, he rejects the notion that the individual has final interpretive and teaching authority; according to Mathison the idea that each individual has final interpretive and teaching authority is precisely what is wrong with the solo scriptura position. On the other hand, Mathison grants that each individual may appeal to Scripture to correct the Church, disobey the Church and leave the Church, so long as he is following his conscience.54 According to Mathison, the individual’s conscience is bound only by his own interpretation of Scripture. That notion reduces every other so-called ecclesial authority (e.g. creed, confession, magisterium) to mere advice. Here’s why. Without apostolic succession no one’s teaching and interpretation is divinely authorized, and therefore one’s conscience is not bound by any interpretive or teaching authority other than that of one’s self. And that is exactly the essence of solo scriptura. In order for the individual to stand in judgment of the interpretation of the Church, he must have equal or greater interpretive and teaching authority than does the Church. Otherwise, if the Church’s interpretation differed from that of the individual, the Church’s teaching and interpretation would serve as the standard to which the individual should make his own interpretation conform.55
1. According to solo scriptura, Scripture is the only ecclesial authority. [def]
2. If solo scriptura is true, then each individual is his own final interpretive authority concerning what he considers to be essential. 
3. According to sola scriptura, Scripture is the only infallible ecclesial authority. [def]
4. If sola scriptura entails that each individual is his own final interpretive authority concerning what he considers to be essential, then in this respect there is no principled difference between solo scriptura and sola scriptura.
5. If apostolic succession is false, then no one’s determination of the marks of the Church is any more authoritative than anyone else’s.
6. If no one’s determination of the marks of the Church is any more authoritative than anyone else’s, then each individual is his own final interpretive authority concerning what he considers to be essential.
7. If apostolic succession is false, then each individual is his own final interpretive authority concerning what he considers to be essential. [(5),(6)]
8. The doctrine of apostolic succession is false. [A]
9. If sola scriptura is true, then each individual is his own final interpretive authority concerning what he considers to be essential. [(7),(8)]
10. There is no principled difference between sola scriptura and solo scriptura. [(4),(9)]
B. The Contradiction Internal to the Sola Scriptura Position
Mathison’s account of the sola scriptura position contains an internal contradiction. On the one hand, he claims that all appeals to Scripture are appeals to interpretations of Scripture:
All appeals to Scripture are appeals to interpretations of Scripture. The only real question is: whose interpretation? People with differing interpretations of Scripture cannot set a Bible on a table and ask it to resolve their differences. In order for the Scripture to function as an authority, it must be read and interpreted by someone.56
On the other hand, he claims that Scripture is the final authority:
Of significant importance to the doctrine of sola scriptura is the insistence that Scripture is the one final and authoritative norm of doctrine and practice.57
Each of these newer concepts of tradition [Catholic and Evangelical] confuses the locus of final authority, ultimately placing it in either the mind of the Church or the mind of the individual. This always results in autonomy and rebellion against the authority of God and His Word.58
But, if all appeals to Scripture are appeals to interpretations of Scripture, then it follows necessarily that either someone’s interpretation of Scripture is the final and authoritative norm of doctrine and practice, or Scripture itself cannot be the final and authoritative norm of doctrine and practice. The latter option is not open to Mathison as a Protestant, because to deny that Scripture is the final and authoritative norm of doctrine and practice is to deny sola scriptura, the very foundation of Protestantism. But neither is the former option open to Mathison, because without apostolic succession, Protestantism has no sacramental basis for anyone’s interpretation being the final and authoritative norm of doctrine and practice. Mathison’s position thus creates a dilemma for himself that cannot be resolved without ceasing to be Protestant.
There is no middle position between the Church having final interpretive authority and the individual having final interpretive authority. Mathison recognizes that all appeals to Scripture are appeals to interpretations of Scripture, and denies that the individual has final interpretive authority. But at the same time, as a Protestant, Mathison maintains that the individual can appeal to his or her own interpretation of Scripture to hold the Church accountable to Scripture, even to walk away from the Church (and thus treat himself as the continuation of the Church), otherwise Mathison would undermine the very basis for Protestants separating from the Catholic Church in the sixteenth century. So Mathison’s position essentially reduces to this: the Church has final interpretive authority, except when the Church’s interpretation disagrees with the individual’s interpretation. But that exception belies the charade, because “when I submit (so long as I agree), the one to whom I submit is me.” For this reason, in sola scriptura it is the individual who ultimately has and always retains final interpretive authority. Sola scriptura is a more sophisticated version of solo scriptura, but this added sophistication makes the position more deceptive, by allowing the individual to believe that he is not one of those me-and-my-Bible individualists.
C. The Delusion of Derivative Authority
Mathison claims that the creeds, the tradition, the ecumenical councils, and the fathers are authentic secondary authorities having derivative authority. Recognition of their genuine, though secondary authority, is one of the primary ways in which Mathison seeks to distinguish sola scriptura from solo scriptura. What does he mean by “secondary” and “derived”? He writes:
[T]he traditions, the fathers, and the Church are all inherently fallible standards. What this means is that these fallible traditions, these fallible fathers, and this fallible Church must be measured against the one infallible perfect standard.59
And he writes that the Church’s authority:
consists in the fact that the Church has been entrusted with the Scriptures (Rom 3:2); in the fact that she is the proclaimer and defender of Scripture (1 Tim 3:15); and in the fact that she must make doctrinal judgments for the sake of the communion (Acts 15:6-35). These judgments usually find their public expression in the creeds and confessions of the Church. But these authoritative judgments are not to be confused with the final authority of Scripture. Their authority derives from and depends upon their conformity with the inherently authoritative Word of God.”60
We showed above how Mathison argued that the proponents of solo scriptura do not recognize the secondary (or derived) authority of the Church and of the creeds. But here we want to show that Mathison’s own position is essentially equivalent to the denial of secondary authority. Mathison claims here that the authority of the creeds and other judgments of the Church “derives from and depends upon their conformity with the inherently authoritative Word of God.” But recall that according to Mathison, all appeals to Scripture are appeals to interpretations of Scripture.61 Therefore, the notion that the authority of the creeds and other judgments of the Church “derives from and depends upon their conformity with the inherently authoritative Word of God” entails that the authority of creeds and other judgments of the Church depends upon their sufficient conformity to the individual’s interpretation of Scripture. In other words, Mathison’s position entails that the creeds and other judgments of the Church are ‘authoritative’ only insofar as they agree with the individual’s interpretation of Scripture. But that conception of derivative authority is no different from that of Reymond, Fudge or Stevens, the very exemplars of solo scriptura that Mathison rejects.
The only relevant difference between Mathison’s position on the one hand, and that of Reymond, Fudge and Stevens on the other hand, is a merely accidental difference. According to Mathison’s interpretation of Scripture, the traditional positions of the Church on the eternal generation of the Son, annihilationism, and hyperpreterism, happen to be correct, meaning, they conform to Mathison’s own interpretation of Scripture. According to the Reymond, Fudge and Stevens’ interpretations of Scripture, respectively, the traditional positions of the Church are incorrect. Mathison himself rejects the teachings of the Council of Trent, because they do not conform to his interpretation of Scripture. So Mathison’s criticism’s of Reymond, Fudge and Stevens amount to “you are not conforming to my interpretation of Scripture.” And the proper response from Reymond, Fudge, and Stevens is, “So what? You have no more authority than do we, that we should conform our interpretations to yours. Moreover, you too pick and choose among the councils, according to your own interpretation of Scripture. So there is no principled difference between your practice and ours.”62
Mathison addresses the heart of the issue when explaining how solo scriptura undermines ecclesial authority by treating the individual as having final interpretive authority. He writes:
Solo scriptura also undermines the legitimate ecclesiastical authority established by Christ. It negates the duty to submit to those who rule over you, because it removes the possibility of an authoritative teaching office in the Church. To place any kind of real hermeneutical authority in an elder or teacher undermines the doctrine of solo scriptura. Those adherents of solo scriptura who do have pastors and teachers to whom they look for leadership do so under the stipulation that the individual is to evaluate the leader’s teaching by Scripture first. What this means in practice is that the individual is to measure his teacher’s interpretation of Scripture against his own interpretation of Scripture. The playing field is leveled when neither the ecumenical creeds nor the Church has any more authority than the individual believer, but Christ did not establish a level playing field. He did not establish a democracy. He established a Church in which men and women are given different gifts, some of which involve a special gift of teaching and leading. These elders have responsibility for the flock and a certain authority over it. Scripture would not call us to submit to those who had no real authority over us (Heb 13:17; Acts 20:28).63
Here Mathison is arguing that solo scriptura undermines legitimate ecclesial authority established by Christ. It does so by denying the “authoritative teaching office” in the Church, and the “hermeneutical authority” of those holding that office. How does it do that? Mathison is explicit: “the individual measures his teacher’s interpretation of Scripture against his own interpretation of Scripture.” For Mathison, God did not establish the Church as a democracy; rather, He gave specific gifts to men to teach and govern His Church.
The problem, however, is that the very basis for the existence of Protestantism as such, the very basis for the separating of Protestants from the Catholic Church, is this very act. The individual measured his teacher’s interpretation of Scripture against his own interpretation of Scripture, and in doing so performatively denied the authority of the teaching office of the Catholic Church. Mathison wants to affirm genuine ecclesial authority as a secondary authority to which individuals should submit, but his position is contravened in two ways. First, the existence of Protestantism as such is based on the legitimacy of the individual rejecting the established ecclesial authority on the basis of his own interpretation.64 So Mathison is trying to propose a system incompatible with Protestantism’s historic foundation, and thus intrinsically incompatible with Protestantism as such.
Second, given Mathison’s denial of apostolic succession, he cannot make a principled appeal to any ecclesial authority as that to which every individual ought to submit. Nothing can give what it does not have. But Mathison’s foundational starting point does not include apostolic succession, and hence de facto it begins with each individual as his own highest interpretive and teaching authority. Therefore no qualitatively greater ecclesial authority than the teaching and interpretive authority derived from the “permission of those who sufficiently agree with me” is available to Mathison. Every secondary authority, given Mathison’s starting point, can be nothing more than a permission extended from the individual to the ’secondary authority’ to function as an authority for the individual at that present time.
Mathison is right about the implications of denying creedal authority. He writes:
The modern Evangelical denial of creedal authority necessarily results in the impossibility of authoritatively and objectively defining the propositional content of Scripture. The very act of authoritatively defining the propositional doctrinal content of Scripture would be the creation of a creed — that which is deemed unacceptable within the framework of solo scriptura. This leaves the responsibility for defining Scripture’s doctrinal content to each individual. In other words, the modern Evangelical denial of genuine creedal authority reduces the doctrinal content of Christianity to mere subjectivism.65
The modern Evangelical church must come to the realization that if the ecumenical creeds have no authority, then there are no essential or necessary doctrines of the Christian faith. There would be only subjective individual opinions of what the “essential truths” of the Christian faith are.66
He is correct that solo scriptura undermines the possibility of authoritatively defining the propositional doctrinal content of Scripture. He is correct that undermining the authority of the creeds practically entails that “there are no essential or necessary doctrines of the Christian faith.” But Mathison’s position does exactly the same thing, because by denying apostolic succession, he undermines the possibility of a creed having any more authority than anyone’s subjective opinion. Apart from apostolic succession, the only ultimate basis for a creed’s ‘authority’ is (1) it agrees with one’s own interpretation of Scripture and/or (2) it was formulated by persons who sufficiently shared one’s own interpretation of Scripture. But both of those reasons reduce to “when I submit (so long as I agree), the one to whom I submit is me,” the very essence of the solo scriptura position Mathison rightly rejects.
How does Mathison attempt to defend his position from this sort of critique? He claims that the authority of the ecumenical creeds follows from the perspicuity of Scripture.
It is interesting to observe that the authority of these ecumenical creeds necessarily follows from one of the fundamental qualities of Scripture itself — its perspicuity. Scripture itself indicates it’s [sic] essential perspicuity or clarity on basic and essential matters.67
If we confess the perspicuity of Scripture, then a confession of the ecumenical creeds inevitably follows. The ecumenical creeds are simply the written form of the confession of the faith of the universal Church. They are a confession of what the Church as a whole has read in the Scriptures.68
[A] denial of this consensus of faith is not only a denial of the perspicuity of Scripture, it is in effect a denial of Scripture itself. Why? If the essential teachings of Scripture are clear (perspicuous); if the Holy Spirit has been promised to guide the Church into the knowledge of the truth of Scripture; if the entire Church for thousands of years confesses to being taught by the Spirit the same essential truths in Scripture, then it follows that those truths are what Scripture says.69
This only compounds the problems with Mathison’s position. If the authority of the ecumenical creeds only followed from the perspicuity of Scripture, there would be no need for the creeds in the first place, since the creeds would have restated only what was already plainly explicit in Scripture. This would entail that all those who opposed the creeds were blind, deaf, and stupid. But history does not support that notion. The Arians, for example, were not unintelligent. They argued from the Scriptures that Christ was the first of God’s creation, a lesser deity, and the highest of all created things. The Macedonians and Nestorians and Sabellians, etc. all argued from Scripture for their respective heresies. Resolving these disputes was precisely the primary purpose of the ecumenical councils. So the purpose of the ecumenical councils shows that Scripture alone was not sufficient to resolve the theological disputes. And this shows that the ecumenical creeds are neither restatements of Scripture (which would simply leave the dispute unresolved) nor are they limited to statements simply and obviously deducible from Scripture by all persons of at least ordinary intelligence. The ecumenical creeds address doctrinal questions not clearly and explicitly stated in Scripture. Hence the authority of the ecumenical creeds cannot come from the perspicuity of Scripture. Mathison’s position is stuck between a rock and a hard place. He wants the creeds and the Church to have secondary authority so as to avoid solo scriptura, but his rejection of apostolic succession leaves any secondary authority with no possible basis except agreement with one’s own interpretation of Scripture.70
His position also faces similar problem consisting of the following dilemma. He claims that it is “to the Church that we must turn for the true interpretation of the Scripture, for it is in the Church that the gospel is found.”71 But at the same time he claims that “Because of the Church’s propensity to wander from the true path, she needs a standard of truth that remains constant and sure, and that standard cannot be herself. It can only be the inspired and infallible Scripture.”72 So, since for Mathison all appeals to Scripture are appeals to interpretations of Scripture, then when, as Mathison claims, the Church wanders from the true path, whose interpretation of Scripture will correct her? If it is the individual’s, then it is false that we must turn to the Church for the true interpretation of Scripture. The individual has no more reason to believe a priori that the Church’s present interpretation of Scripture is correct than he has to believe that the Church now stands in dire need of correction from his own lips on the basis of his own personal interpretation of Scripture. On the other hand, if it does not belong to the individual to correct the Church when she “wanders from the true path,” then it can belong to none other than the Church to correct herself when she wanders from the true path.” So the errant Church is then supposed to be corrected by her own erronious interpretation of Scripture. Not only does that seem implausible, if Protestants truly believed that to be the case, they would simply have remained in the Catholic Church, waiting for the ‘erring’ Church to be corrected back to the truth on the basis of her own erroneous interpretation of Scripture. But Protestants did not remain in the Catholic Church; and this indicates that Protestants did not and do not in fact believe that Scripture corrects the Church when she “wanders from the true path.” The problematic assumption in Mathison’s position entailing this dilemma is his notion that the Church “wanders from the true path,” something he has to hold in order to justify being a Protestant.73
V. Objections and Replies
A. Tu Quoque: “The Catholic Position Does not Avoid Solo Scriptura“
One objection to our argument that there is no principled difference between sola scriptura and solo scriptura is that the Catholic position likewise ultimately reduces to solo scriptura. This is so, according to the objection, because the individual who becomes Catholic must start in the same epistemic position as the person who becomes Protestant. In choosing to become Catholic, he has simply chosen the denomination that best conforms to his own interpretation of Scripture. He places himself under the authority of the Catholic bishops in the same way that a Lutheran places himself under the authority of a Lutheran pastor, that a Baptist places himself under the authority of a Baptist pastor, or that a Presbyterian places himself under a Presbyterian pastor. Hence if the person who becomes Protestant retains final interpretive authority, then so does the person who becomes Catholic.
The objection is understandable, but it can be made only by those who do not see the principled difference between the discovery of the Catholic Church, and joining a Protestant denomination or congregation. Of course a person during the process of becoming Catholic is not under the authority of the Church. At that stage, he or she is like the Protestant in that respect. But the Catholic finds something principally different, and properly finds it by way of qualitatively different criteria. The Protestant is seeking a group of persons who believe, teach and practice what his interpretation of Scripture indicates was the belief, teaching and practice of the Apostles. He retains his final interpretive authority so long as he remains Protestant. No Protestant denomination has the authority to bind his conscience, because [in his mind] the Church must always remains subject to Scripture, which really means that the Church must always remains subject to [his interpretation of] Scripture, or at least that he is not ultimately subject to anyone’s interpretation but his own.
The person becoming Catholic, by contrast, is seeking out the Church that Christ founded. He does this not by finding that group of persons who share his interpretation of Scripture. Rather, he locates in history those whom the Apostles appointed and authorized, observes what they say and do viz-a-viz the transmission of teaching and interpretive authority, traces that line of successive authorizations down through history to the present day to a living Magisterium, and then submits to what this present-day Magisterium is teaching. By finding the Magisterium, he finds something that has the divine authority to bind the conscience.
Here we should say something about what it means to bind the conscience. It is of the very nature of law to bind the conscience. Law does not coerce the will, but law binds the conscience precisely insofar as reason grasps it as the standard or rule to which our beliefs, words and actions ought to conform. God’s law, written on our hearts in the form of the natural law, informs the conscience of every man. Once one knows the law, then one knows acting against the law to be unlawful. Likewise, once one knows the Church’s magisterial authority, and her divinely revealed laws and dogmas concerning faith and morals, then one’s conscience is bound to believe and obey them. One knows that to disbelieve the Church’s dogmas is heresy and sinful, because one knows that what the Church has definitively determined, the Holy Spirit has ipso facto spoken. When the Church, with the authority she has received from Christ through the Apostles, definitively declares dogma, she ipso facto binds the conscience insofar as the hearer knows both the content of these dogmas and the divine authority by which they have been determined.
So for the person becoming Catholic, when he recognizes the authority of the Magisterium, he recognizes that his beliefs and interpretation of Scripture must conform to the authoritative teachings of the Church’s Magisterium. “When the Magisterium of the Church makes an infallible pronouncement that a teaching is found in Revelation,” he assents to it by an act of faith, believing this pronouncement to be the teaching of Christ, on account of the divine authority given to the Magisterium through apostolic succession to teach in Christ’s name and with His authority.74 In this way, his faith in Christ is expressed as an act of faith in the infallible pronouncement of the Church’s Magisterium. In those teachings which are not infallible, he also, as an act of faith in Christ, gives religious submission of intellect and will, even while recognizing the fallibility of those teaching.75
The Protestant, by contrast, in joining a Protestant community does not find the Magisterium. That is because he does not find something that can bind his conscience regarding the canon of Scripture, the interpretation of Scripture, and the identity of orthodoxy and heresy. This is why in his Protestant community he perpetually retains final interpretive authority, because no decision of that community has the authority to bind his conscience. This is why Mathison, drawing from Turretin, claims that “the individual conscience cannot be bound by anything other than the Word of God.”76 And since, for Mathison, “All appeals to Scripture are appeals to interpretations of Scripture,”77 it follows that the individual conscience cannot be bound by anything other than his own interpretation of Scripture.
Here we see precisely why the tu quoque fails against the Catholic. The person who becomes Catholic finds something that binds his conscience viz-a-viz the canon of Scripture and the interpretation of Scripture; he finds the Magisterium that the incarnate Christ established and authorized. By contrast, the person who becomes Protestant, finds nothing outside himself that binds his conscience viz-a-viz the canon of Scripture and the interpretation of Scripture. For this reason, until a person finds the Magisterium, he remains his own final interpretive authority, because he knows of nothing that can bind his conscience regarding the interpretation of Scripture. But when a person finds the Magisterium, and recognizes it for what it is, he immediately ceases to be his own final interpretive authority. He recognizes that his interpretation of Scripture ought to be conformed to the teaching and interpretation of the Magisterium, and that to reject the teaching of the Magisterium would be to reject Christ, just as Jesus said to the Apostles:
The one who listens to you listens to Me, and the one who rejects you rejects Me; and he who rejects Me rejects the One who sent Me. (Luke 10:16)
The Protestant epistemological stance, by contrast, is exemplified in the words of Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms:
Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason — I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other — my conscience is captive to the Word of God.78
Luther’s statement captures the very essence of Protestant religious epistemology. All Protestants who followed Luther’s example took this very same stance, subjecting the Church’s teaching, councils, and interpretive tradition to the standard of their own interpretation of Scripture, picking and choosing from them as though they were mere advice. Since according to Mathison “all appeals to Scripture are appeals to interpretations of Scripture,” Luther’s claim that his conscience was “captive to the Word of God” means in actuality that his conscience was ultimately bound by his own interpretation of Scripture. That very claim, namely, that our conscience is bound ultimately by our own interpretation of Scripture, is contrary to the perpetual teaching of the Church, because that claim denies that Christ established a perpetual teaching authority in His Church, a magisterial authority through which the Holy Spirit works to determine definitively matters of faith and morals, and to which all Christians are to be subject. If the Church has the authority from Christ to give the definitive decision regarding some question of faith or morals, then she has the authority to bind the conscience ultimately regarding such matters. If the Church did not have the authority to bind the conscience, she could do nothing more than offer advice, because in that case no decision she made regarding faith or morals would be definitive.
The follow-up objection to our argument takes the form of a dilemma. The dilemma runs like this. Either the individual needs the guidance of an interpretive authority when interpreting Scripture, or not. If the individual needs the guidance of an interpretive authority when interpreting Scripture, then he will need the guidance of another interpretive authority when interpreting the first interpretive authority. And he will need the guidance of third interpretive authority when interpreting the second interpretive authority. That would lead to an infinite regress. But there cannot be an infinite regress, hence the individual does not need the guidance of an interpretive authority when interpreting Scripture.
The problem with this dilemma is that it ignores the qualitative ontological distinction between persons and books, and so it falsely assumes that if a book needs an authoritative interpreter in order to function as an ecclesial authority, so must a living person. A book contains a monologue with respect to the reader. An author can often anticipate the thoughts and questions that might arise in the mind of the reader. But a book cannot hear the reader’s questions here and now, and answer them. A living person, however, can do so. A living person can engage in genuine dialogue with the reader, whereas a book cannot. Fr. Kimel talks about that here when he quotes Chesterton as saying that though we can put a living person in the dock, we cannot put a book in the dock. In this respect, a person can do what a book cannot; a person can correct global misunderstandings and answer comprehensive interpretive questions. A book by its very nature has a limited intrinsic potency for interpretive self-clarification; a person, on the other hand, by his very nature has, in principle, an unlimited intrinsic potency with respect to interpretive self-clarification. This unlimited potency with respect to interpretive self-clarification ensures that the hermeneutical spiral may reach its end. A book cannot speak more about itself than it does at the moment at which it is completed. A person, by contrast, remains perpetually capable of clarifying further any of his previous speech-acts.
This objection can also take the following form. Even if the Church possesses final interpretive authority, yet because the individual must nevertheless interpret the Church’s dogmatic pronouncements, therefore, the individual must be the final interpretive authority of the Church’s dogmatic pronouncements. This objection conflates two senses of the term ‘final.’ ‘Final’ can mean the terminus of a movement or of a series of movements, as an airplane has a final destination, the terminus of a series of flights for the day. ‘Final’ can also mean the terminus in an order or hierarchy, as the Commander in Chief is for the military.79 In a communication, the individual receiving that communication is, by definition, the terminus of the movement whereby knowledge is transmitted. He is, in that sense, the final interpreter. But he is not thereby the final interpretive authority in the sense of a terminus in an order or hierarchy. He may be the terminus of the motion of the communication, while remaining subordinate in the order of interpretive authority. The exercise of interpretive authority by the Magisterium, say, at an ecumenical council, does not prevent believers from interpreting Scripture or any other communication. Nor does it withhold from them the skill by which to interpret Sacred Scripture. On the contrary, the exercise of this teaching and interpretive authority provides a supernatural light by which the believer ought to interpret Scripture. We ignore or disregard that interpretive authority at our peril, because it is God-given authority, for our good.80
A related objection takes the following form. Civil government leaders have genuine authority, yet they are neither infallible nor can they bind the conscience nor do they require some kind of analog to apostolic succession. Therefore neither infallibility nor the power to bind the conscience nor apostolic succession is necessary for genuine Magisterial authority in the Church. In response, it is true that civil government leaders have genuine civil authority, which they have received from God. And it is true that they are not infallible. But it is not true that they cannot bind the conscience. Civil laws bind the conscience in that we are obligated to obey them, so long as they do not conflict with a higher law, whether that be the natural law, or the law of God as revealed through the Church. Hence the nature of genuine civil authority does not show that the Magisterium cannot bind the conscience of the faithful.
In addition, the nature of the Church’s Magisterial authority is not rightly determined by determining what nature of authority is sufficient for civil government. Such a method would presuppose both that the Church is equivalent in nature to a civil society and that there is no existing ecclesial authority that provides the definitive answer to questions about the nature of the Church’s authority. Hence the fallibility of civil authority does not show that the Church’s Magisterial authority is always likewise fallible. Most importantly, Magisterial authority differs from civil authority in that the Magisterium of the Church provides the authoritative interpretation both of natural law and divine law supernaturally-revealed. For this reason, while the civil authority cannot bind the conscience with respect to natural and divine law, the Magisterium of the Church does bind the conscience with respect to natural and divine law. Those who know this can never, in good conscience, oppose the definitive teaching of the Magisterium in matters of faith and morals, by claiming that they must obey God rather than men. The definitive teaching of the Magisterium is the voice of God to the Catholic, just as conscience is the voice of God to the pagan. This is why the Catholic must seek to conform his conscience according to the definitive teaching of the Church in matters of faith and morals, because the Church’s Magisterium is a higher authority than his conscience (i.e. than reason alone).
Regarding whether civil authorities acquire their authority through some kind of analog to apostolic succession, the answer is both yes and no, though in different respects. The rightful ruler in a civil society is the one who has been selected according to the process specified by the law. A usurper, no matter how popular, is not the rightful ruler. In this respect, the way in which a civil authority acquires his civil authority is similar to the way a person holding ecclesial authority acquires that ecclesial authority, because an ecclesial authority rightly acquires such authority by a process already laid down in Church law and tradition. And we know that the civil authority has been given his authority by God’s providence, as Jesus indicates in John 19:11 in speaking to Pilate. And St. Paul teaches the same in Romans 13:1.
Magisterial authority in the Church, however, cannot be acquired only through providence. If there were no essential difference between these two authorities, the Church would be nothing more than a civil society, and this would contradict Christ’s statement, “My kingdom is not of this world.” (John 18:36). When Jesus says that His Kingdom is not of this world, He is not saying that His Kingdom is located in some other world; He is saying that His Kingdom, which is in this world, does not have its authority from the world, i.e. from the natural order. What makes the Church a supernatural society, and not merely a natural society, is precisely that the authority by which she is governed is a supernatural authority. That supernatural authority is Christ’s own authority. His authority is supernatural because He is God. And He gave His supernatural authority sacramentally to His Apostles, and they in turn handed it on to their successors.81 For this reason, without apostolic succession, the Church would be a natural society providentially governed by God, another nation among the nations. Only by apostolic succession is she a divine society that does not compete with natural societies, because grace builds on nature. In short, civil authorities acquire their natural civic authority by God’s providence through lawful processes. Since the Church is a supernatural society, ecclesial authorities cannot acquire their authority naturally under providential guidance. Ecclesial authority is not natural authority, but supernatural authority, and therefore requires succession from a supernatural source.
B. Sola Ecclesia: The Church Is Autonomous, a Law unto Itself, and Unaccountable
A second type of objection follows directly from the preceding paragraph. According to this objection, if the Church’s Magisterium has final interpretive authority, then the Church is placing itself above Scripture, making itself autonomous, and entirely unaccountable. Mathison himself makes this sort of objection against the Catholic Church. Recall that for Mathison the problem with solo scriptura is that it “results in the autonomy of the individual believer.”82 He claims that Catholic doctrine makes the Church similarly autonomous. He writes:
The fundamental problem with “solo” Scriptura is that it results in autonomy. It results in final authority being placed somewhere other than the Word of God. It shares this problem with the Roman Catholic doctrine. The only difference is that the Roman Catholic doctrine places final authority in the church while “solo” Scriptura places final authority in each individual believer. Every doctrine and practice is measured against a final standard, and that final standard is the individual’s personal judgment of what is and is not biblical.83
One difficulty for Mathison is that if, as he argues, “the church” has greater interpretive authority than the individual, then Mathison cannot avoid the result that “the church” must likewise be ‘final’ in the sense he thinks is objectionable. In that case it follows that his own interpreters must also be subject to the charges of “autonomy” and to a Reformed version of “sola ecclesia.” Mathison’s objection to the Catholic Church’s position is that in relation to Scripture the Catholic Church is hermeneutically equivalent to a large subjective individual composed of many individuals — a collective version of the individual proponent of solo scriptura — and that the Catholic Church therefore falls victim to the same problem of individualism found in solo scriptura, except that it does so in a large scale, institutional way. So if he thinks all this follows against the Catholic Church because the Catholic Church (as opposed to Scripture) has, or makes itself out to have, final interpretive authority, then, if it follows that in his own sola scriptura position “the church” is also the final interpretive authority, then his position must also face the same problems that he attributes to the Catholic position.
Mathison clarifies this somewhat by claiming that what makes the Catholic Magisterium autonomous viz-a-viz Scripture is the notion that the Magisterium is infallible under certain conditions. He writes:
Finally, we must always be mindful that claims to infallibility by the Church or any member of the Church inevitably lead to autonomy on the part of the one or ones claiming such infallibility. Even such qualified infallibility as that which is claimed by Rome has led to virtual autonomy. The Roman church has become a law unto herself. Against what higher standard can an infallible Church be measured? None. The only standard against which Rome allows herself to be measured is Rome.84
Mathison thinks that if the Church claims to be guided infallibly in her definitive formulations of dogma, this makes her a “law unto herself,” not subject to a higher standard. And that result, thinks Mathison, is precisely the mistake of solo scriptura; it makes final authority rest some place other than the Word of God.
Let’s consider this objection carefully. Mathison claims that “the only difference [between Catholic doctrine and the 'solo scriptura' position] is that the Roman Catholic doctrine places final authority in the Church while solo Scriptura places final authority in each individual believer.” Notice that he does not specify what he means by ‘final authority.’ The term can refer to two different types of authority. It can refer to the authority of the deposit of faith entrusted by Christ to the Apostles, or it can refer to teaching and interpretive authority with respect to that deposit of faith. Mathison seems to conflate the two types, or fail to distinguish between them, as though having final interpretive authority with respect to Scripture is to be equal in authority to the deposit of faith.
There is a difference, however, between the authority of the deposit of faith, and interpretive authority. We can see this difference already in Tertullian, who writes:
Our appeal [in debating with the heretics], therefore, must not be made to the Scriptures; nor must controversy be admitted on points in which victory will either be impossible, or uncertain, or not certain enough. For a resort to the Scriptures would but result in placing both parties on equal footing, whereas the natural order of procedure requires one question to be asked first, which is the only one now that should be discussed: “With whom lies that very faith to which the Scriptures belong? From what and through whom, and when, and to whom, has been handed down that rule by which men become Christians? For wherever it shall be manifest that the true Christian rule and faith shall be, there will likewise be the true Scriptures and expositions thereof, and all the Christian traditions.85
Since this is the case, in order that the truth may be adjudged to belong to us, ‘as many as walk according to the rule,’ which the church has handed down from the apostles, the apostles from Christ, and Christ from God, the reason of our position is clear, when it determines that heretics ought not to be allowed to challenge an appeal to the Scriptures, since we, without the scriptures, prove that they have nothing to do with the Scriptures. For as they are heretics, they cannot be true Christians, because it is not from Christ that they get that which they pursue of their own mere choice, and from the pursuit incur and admit the name of heretics. Thus not being Christians, they have acquired no right to the Christian Scriptures; and it may be very fairly said to them, ‘Who are you?’”86
Before debating the interpretation of Scripture, says Tertullian, we must first discover who has teaching and interpretive authority with respect to the deposit of faith. To do this, we locate those to whom the deposit of faith was entrusted, as handed down from the Apostles. Tertullian was writing about one hundred years after the death of the last Apostle. So the method he indicates for locating interpretive authority was not limited only to the generation after the Apostles. Tertullian indicates here a relation between interpretive authority and apostolic succession. In each generation, those persons having interpretive authority viz-a-viz the Scriptures are those to whom the deposit of faith was entrusted in the previous generation, all the way back to the Apostles themselves.
In this way Tertullian provides a clear example of the Catholic understanding of interpretive authority, and the basis for it in apostolic succession. Regarding the interpretive authority of the Church viz-a-viz the individual, the Council of Trent stated the following:
Furthermore, to check unbridled spirits, it decrees that no one relying on his own judgment shall, in matters of faith and morals pertaining to the edification of Christian doctrine, distorting the Holy Scriptures in accordance with his own conceptions, presume to interpret them contrary to that sense which holy mother Church, to whom it belongs to judge of their true sense and interpretation, has held and holds, or even contrary to the unanimous teaching of the Fathers.87
And the First Vatican Council reaffirmed this, saying:
Now since the decree on the interpretation of Holy Scripture, profitably made by the Council of Trent, with the intention of constraining rash speculation, has been wrongly interpreted by some, we renew that decree and declare its meaning to be as follows: that in matters of faith and morals, belonging as they do to the establishing of Christian doctrine, that meaning of Holy Scripture must be held to be the true one, which Holy mother Church held and holds, since it is her right to judge of the true meaning and interpretation of Holy Scripture. In consequence, it is not permissible for anyone to interpret Holy Scripture in a sense contrary to this, or indeed against the unanimous consent of the fathers.88
In the Catholic understanding, the individual’s own interpretation of Scripture does not have equal or greater authority than does that of the Magisterium. One of the primary tasks of the Magisterium is to give the authoritative interpretation of the deposit of faith.
The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ.89
The pronouncements of the teaching and interpretative authority of the Church do not hold the same intrinsic authority as the deposit of faith, just as the Apostles were not equal in authority to Christ Himself. Christ has greater authority than did the Apostles, but that does not entail that when the Apostles were preaching and teaching they had no authority, or that they only had authority when what they were saying was divinely inspired. Having interpretive authority does not entail that the interpreter has the same or more authority than what is being interpreted. Jesus told them, “The one who listens to you listens to Me, and the one who rejects you rejects Me.” (Luke 10:16) When the Apostles testified that Jesus is the Christ, they did not take away from Christ’s authority; they spoke with His authority, by His authorization. But if interpretive authority were ipso facto equivalent in authority to that which it had been given the authority to interpret, then since the Apostles had the authority to speak in Christ’s name and interpret and explain what He had said, it would follow that the Apostles and Christ had equal authority. The Apostles and Christ, however, do not have equal authority. Therefore, interpretive authority is not ipso facto equivalent in authority to that which it has been given the authority to interpret. An authorized witness can give an authoritative testimony concerning an authority greater than himself; otherwise no one could have come to believe in the divinity of Jesus through the authority of the Apostles’ testimony. That is why, according to Catholic doctrine, the Magisterium “is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant.”
Yet this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it. At the divine command and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it listens to this devotedly, guards it with dedication and expounds it faithfully. All that it proposes for belief as being divinely revealed is drawn from this single deposit of faith.90
Protestants sometimes mistakenly think that the Catholic position is sola ecclesia, but that is inaccurate. There is a three-fold arrangement of ecclesial authority consisting of Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture, and Magisterium, each according to its own mode:
It is clear therefore that, in the supremely wise arrangement of God, sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture and the Magisterium of the Church are so connected and associated that one of them cannot stand without the others. Working together, each in its own way, under the action of the one Holy Spirit, they all contribute effectively to the salvation of souls.91
In Catholic theology Scripture is something known and properly understood only within the bosom of the Church, and only as explicated by the Magisterium of the Church. Of course this does not preclude private study of Scripture; that is encouraged.92 But in the Catholic Church Sacred Scripture is something properly known and understood through the Magisterium’s teaching authority guided by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit operates through the Magisterium to cast a supernatural light upon Scripture, so that it may be understood according to the same Spirit by Whom it was inspired.
So, in sum, the authority of Scripture is the authority of the deposit of faith. The authority of the Magisterium, on the other hand, is interpretive authority with respect to the deposit of faith. These are two different types or modes of authority. They do not compete with each other, but complement each other, and are mutually dependent. The Magisterium cannot exist as an interpretive authority, without the sacred deposit of the Word of God. Similarly, the Sacred Scriptures cannot provide their own authentic and authoritative interpretation to the Church, and so require the Magisterium in order to fulfill their purpose in the Church.
Mathison indicates that it is not teaching and interpretive authority per se, that (in his view) entails Magisterial autonomy. It is primarily the doctrine of Magisterial infallibility.93 There are at least two principled reasons why a Protestant might object to the doctrine that the Magisterium is infallible. First, one might believe that if any doctrinal pronouncements by the Magisterium are infallible, then such pronouncements are equivalent in authority to Scripture. Second, he might think that if any doctrinal pronouncements by the Magisterium are infallible, then there is no court of appeals for such doctrines.
Consider the first reason. If two statements are true, this does not entail that they are equally authoritative. Authority is not reducible to truth. The statement “I exist” is no less true than Christ’s statement, “I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” (John 14:6) Both statements are equally true, but the latter has greater authority because it was spoken by God Himself. Since infallibility means protected from error, therefore it only means that the result is true. It does not, in itself, determine the degree of authority the statement has. Authority in this sense is that to which submission and obedience is due from those entrusted to it. Reducing authority to truth conceptually eliminates authority. That is because such a reduction would imply that we need only submit to authority when the authority speaks what we already believe, or can independently verify, to be the truth. Hence, the result would eliminate authority, because “When I submit (so long as I agree), the one to whom I submit is me.”
So the true interpretation of Scripture is not authoritative because the interpretation is true, but this interpretation can be known to be true because it has been divinely authorized. An authoritative interpretation of Scripture is authoritative not because it is true (though it is true), but because of the authority given by Christ to the Magisterium to which is due submission of mind and will regarding the authentic interpretation of Scripture. For this reason the infallibility of a doctrinal pronouncement by the Magisterium does not make that doctrinal pronouncement as authoritative or more authoritative than Scripture itself.
The other objection to Magisterial infallibility is that it removes the possibility of a court of appeals for such doctrines. More specifically, given this doctrine of infallibility, the Scripture cannot be the “final court of appeal” if the Magisterium has already definitively and infallibly ruled on some matter of faith or morals, and there is no court of appeal beyond the Magisterium. In reply, recall that for Mathison,
All appeals to Scripture are appeals to interpretations of Scripture. The only real question is: whose interpretation?94
There are a few things we can say here. First, if all appeals to Scripture are appeals to interpretations of Scripture, then Scripture alone cannot function as the “final court of appeals.” So Mathison’s requirement that Scripture be the final court of appeal is incompatible with his claim that all appeals to Scripture are appeals to interpretation of Scripture.
Second, if the Church’s definitive rulings are infallible, then there is no reason to challenge them by appealling to some higher authority. It makes no sense to appeal an infallible decision. So Mathison’s autonomy charge against the Catholic doctrine of Magisterial infallibility only applies if the Catholic doctrine of Magisterial infallibility is false. Hence in that respect Mathison’s charge begs the question (i.e. presumes precisely what is in question). Wishing to appeal an infallible ruling begs the question, by presuming that the infallible ruling is fallible. The problem in that case is not that the Magisterium has a charism of infallibility, but that the person requiring an additional court of appeals has not recognized that the Magisterium has this charism.
Third, when Mathison claims that the Church’s Magisterium needs to be accountable, he only pushes back the question. Accountable to whom? It cannot be Scripture itself, for the reason shown above, that Scripture needs to be interpreted. So it must be some other person or persons. Designate those to whom the Magisterium is accountable as x. Now, to whom are x accountable? Designate those to whom x are accountable as y. Now to whom are y accountable? We can keep asking this question. Either there is an infinite regress, or there is a final interpretive authority. But an infinite regress of accountability is absurd. So if there is to be accountability with respect to doctrinal and interpretive judgments, there must be a highest or final interpretive authority. Therefore the request for the Magisterium to be accountable to some other body is a denial that the Magisterium is the Magisterium, and a presumption that there is another Magisterium having final interpretive authority.
But the person who wants the Magisterium to be accountable to some other body, can only be satisfied if that body is either himself or those whom he approves. Otherwise his dissatisfaction with the lack of accountability would necessarily remain, for any body which has final interpretive authority. Hence the person who demands that the Magisterium be accountable to some other body is in actuality demanding that the Magisterium be accountable (directly or indirectly) to himself. And that is another way of showing that the demand is in essence an implicit arrogation to oneself of Magisterial authority. It is an expression of the maxim: “When I submit (so long as I agree), the one to whom I submit is me.”95
The Objections to Solo are Objections to Sola
In this paper we have argued that apart from apostolic succession, there is no principled difference between solo scriptura and sola scriptura. If our argument is sound, it follows that the criticisms Mathison raises against solo scriptura apply no less to sola scriptura. If “hermeneutical chaos and anarchy” result from solo scriptura, then they likewise result from sola scriptura. If solo scriptura leads to the “multiplication of schisms,” so does sola scriptura. If solo scriptura entails that the creeds have no “real authority,” then sola scriptura likewise entails that the creeds have no real authority. If the necessary result of solo scriptura is a practical relativism concerning the content of Scripture, then this too is the necessary result of sola scriptura. If solo scriptura “destroys” the authority of Scripture “by making the meaning of Scripture dependent upon the judgment of each individual,” then so does sola scriptura. Given the soundness of our argument, it follows that the claim by various Catholics that sola scriptura is the source of Protestant fragmentation and division in which each person interprets Scripture as seems right in his own eyes, is not a criticism of a straw man, but is in fact quite accurate.
Concerning solo scriptura, Mathison writes,
By denying the authority of the corporate judgment of the Church, solo scriptura has exalted the individual judgment of the individual to the place of final authority. It is the individual who decides what Scripture means. It is the individual who judges between doctrines on the basis of his individual interpretation of Scripture. It is the individual who is sovereign.”96
In light of our argument that there is no principled difference between sola scriptura and solo scriptura, Mathison’s criticism of solo scriptura turns out to be a criticism of sola scriptura. So long as the individual retains final interpretive authority, it is the “the individual who is sovereign.” Yet as we have shown, in sola scriptura, the individual retains final interpretive authority. Hence it follows that in sola scriptura, it is the individual who is sovereign.
Solo Scriptura is the Fuller Manifestation and Outworking of Sola Scriptura
Moreover, our argument helps explain the rise over the last one hundred and fifty years of the explicit embrace of a solo scriptura approach within Protestantism. Philosophies and theologies more fully manifest their nature over time. If there is no principled difference between sola scriptura and solo scriptura, then we would expect the sola scriptura doctrine taught by the early Protestant to come to manifest its true nature over time as outright solo scriptura. Sola scriptura could temporarily conceal its true nature, as Protestantism lived on the inertial remnants of Catholic conceptions of sacramental authority. Sacramental magisterial authority is supernatural in origin, as we explained above, because the Church is a divine institution. The denial of sacramental magisterial authority closes a person off to the Church as supernatural, leaving only the possibility of democratic (bottom-up) man-made authority under providential guidance. As Protestants have come to understand more clearly the democratic nature of Protestant ecclesial authority, they have come to see that as Protestants, they themselves as individuals, hold final interpretive authority, and have come to live as such. This explains the widespread solo scriptura phenomenon within Protestantism that Mathison decries. Louis Bouyer concurs, saying:
The main difficulty Protestants have with the Catholic Church (and with the separated Eastern church as well) is on the subject of authority, and more particularly the teaching authority she claims. The opposition of those Protestants who are closest to the spirit of primitive Protestantism rests, as we have said, on the fear that whatever is conceded to the authority of the Church detracts correspondingly from the authority of the Word of God in the Bible. The opposition of those who adhere to doctrinal liberalism, however, while equally strong, has a different object, quite the reverse of the other. They object to the authority of the Church not for replacing another authority held to be divine and, as such, claiming man’s exclusive and undivided submission. They object to it simply because it is authority and therefore something inimical to the individual religious conscience.
This being the case, we may be tempted to believe that Protestantism, in the course of its development, has passed from one extreme to the other. That is to a certain extent, but not absolutely, true. The Protestantism which rejects the authority of the Church because it rejects all authority has come out of the Protestantism which rejected the authority of the Church because of the fear it wronged that other authority, held to be sovereign, of the Scriptures. If it was possible for the first to come from the second, it must somehow have been contained therein.97
Bouyer presents two stances within Protestantism toward Magisterial authority. One of them, which he refers to as those closest to early Protestantism, fears that Magisterial authority detracts from the authority of Scripture, as though the two are the same sort of authority, and hence must be in competition with each other. Liberal Protestantism, by contrast, likewise objects to Magisterial authority, not for fear that it might detract from the authority of Scripture, but simply because it rejects authority. We might be tempted, claims Bouyer, to think that liberal Protestantism’s attitude toward authority is the opposite extreme of early Protestantism’s notion of authority. But according to Bouyer, that would be inaccurate. The liberal rejection of authority came out of the earlier Protestant conception of authority, precisely because it was somehow contained within it.
Recovering Apostolic Succession is the only way to avoid Solo
How then can Protestants avoid solo scriptura? Only by recovering apostolic succession. Solo scriptura logically follows the denial of apostolic succession. Either ecclesial authority has its basis in agreement or approval as determined by the individual’s own interpretation of Scripture, or ecclesial authority has its basis in Christ’s authorization and appointment. Wherever ecclesial authority has its basis in the individual’s agreement with that authority’s interpretation, there in essence is solo scriptura. And there in essence is the fulfillment of St. Paul’s prophecy:
For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires (2 Timothy 4:3.)
Only where ecclesial authority has its basis in Christ’s authorization and commission is the individual’s interpretation ultimately subject to that of the Church. Mathison’s positive intention to read and understand Scripture in the Church has genuine implications only if ‘Church’ is not defined as those who interpret Scripture like he does regarding the marks of the Church.98 But authorization and appointment by the incarnate Christ can be found only in those having the succession of authorizations extending back through the Apostles to Christ Himself. Without apostolic succession, the individual has no less interpretive authority than does the Church. For this reason, only by recovering apostolic succession can Protestants overcome solo scriptura and all its destructive effects. May Christ the Good Shepherd bring us all into the one flock with one shepherd. (John 10:16).
By Bryan Cross and Neal Judisch
- See the Catholic Encyclopedia entry ‘Protestantism.’ See also Philip Schaff, The Principle of Protestantism (Wipf & Stock, 2004). [↩]
- Cf. Alister McGrath, Christianity’s Dangerous Idea (HarperOne, 2007). [↩]
- ”Solo Scriptura: The Difference a Vowel Makes,” pp. 25-29, 16 Modern Reformation Mar./Apr. 2007. Cf. The Shape of Sola Scriptura, pp. 237-253 (Canon Press, 2001) [hereinafter Shape]. [↩]
- ”Solo Scriptura: The Difference a Vowel Makes.” [↩]
- Shape, pp. 274-275. [↩]
- In his letter of March 10, 2009, Pope Benedict XVI said something quite similar. He wrote:
Leading men and women to God, to the God who speaks in the Bible: this is the supreme and fundamental priority of the Church and of the Successor of Peter at the present time. A logical consequence of this is that we must have at heart the unity of all believers. Their disunity, their disagreement among themselves, calls into question the credibility of their talk of God. Hence the effort to promote a common witness by Christians to their faith – ecumenism – is part of the supreme priority.
- Shape, pp. 239-240. [↩]
- Shape, p. 240. On the following page Mathison writes, “Unless one can escape the effects of sin, ignorance, and all previous learning, one cannot read the Scriptures without some bias and blind spots.” Here he is decrying what he describes as the “naïve belief in the ability to escape one’s own noetic and spiritual limitations” that undergirds the solo scriptura orientation. Shape, p. 241. [↩]
- ”Solo Scriptura: The Difference a Vowel Makes,” pp. 25-29. Note that we, as well as Mathison, nevertheless accept that scriptura scripturae interpres (Scripture interprets Scripture), in the sense that the whole and each of the parts of Scripture function in such a way as to illuminate the meaning of one another. Dei Verbum, one of the documents of Vatican II, teaches:
Holy Scripture must be read and interpreted in the sacred spirit in which it was written, no less serious attention must be given to the content and unity of the whole of Scripture if the meaning of the sacred texts is to be correctly worked out. The living tradition of the whole Church must be taken into account along with the harmony which exists between elements of the faith. It is the task of exegetes to work according to these rules toward a better understanding and explanation of the meaning of Sacred Scripture, so that through preparatory study the judgment of the Church may mature. For all of what has been said about the way of interpreting Scripture is subject finally to the judgment of the Church, which carries out the divine commission and ministry of guarding and interpreting the word of God. Dei Verbum, 12.
- Shape, p. 246. We do not agree with Mathison that solo scriptura necessarily entails relativism. The person holding solo scriptura may believe firmly that his own interpretation is objectively true, and that everyone who disagrees with his interpretation is wrong. But we agree with Mathison that there is some truth to the connection between solo scriptura and relativism. That is because it is difficult in our present fluid culture to sustain the notion that anyone who disagrees with one’s own interpretation is wrong. The continual encounter those of obvious intelligence and sincerity revering the very same book, and yet interpreting it differently from oneself, makes some form of relativism attractive without a principled basis for believing that one’s own interpretation is the authorized interpretation. So in this way, solo scriptura lends itself to a ‘practical relativism,’ which easily slides into an unqualified relativism. [↩]
- 1 Corinthians 1:10. Someone might object that divisions are good, since St. Paul says, “For there must also be factions among you, in order that those who are approved may have become evident among you.” (1 Cor. 11:19.) But St. Paul is not there praising division among Christians. He is teaching that division always entails schism from, not schism within. [↩]
- Shape, p. 241. [↩]
- Reymond, for his part, will respond that the Nicene Creed does have “real authority,” but that the authority it possesses is derivative and contingent upon its fidelity to Scripture; and since in his estimation it fails to conform to Scripture on this point of Trinitarian doctrine, he wishes to see it rectified “in light of the Biblical teaching.” The confluence between Mathison’s and Reymond’s orientations in this instance is quite striking. Striking, too, is the appearance that for Mathison the “real authority” of the Nicene Creed entails its irreformability: for Mathison does not criticize the theological or exegetical argumentation upon which Reymond relies to justify his repudiation of the “Nicene Trinitarian Concept,” but contents himself merely to point out Reymond’s departure from it, leaving us to conclude that his departure from the Nicene Creed is ipso facto a mistake. Yet if the “real authority” of Nicaea entails the irreformability of its Creed — as it certainly appears to here for Mathison, at least “in practice” — then it can be no argument against the “infallibility” of Nicaea or any other Council that the dogmatic decrees promulgated in them are likewise “irreformable.” Why, then, are we meant to believe that the irreformability of (infallible) Catholic dogma is objectionable, whereas the irreformability of the “real but subservient authority” of the Councils Protestants accept fails to infringe upon the ultimate authority of Scripture? [↩]
- Quoted in Shape, p. 242. [↩]
- Shape, p. 243. [↩]
- Shape, pp. 243-244. [↩]
- Shape, p. 246. [↩]
- He writes:
The doctrine of solo scriptura, despite its claims to uniquely preserve the authority of the Word of God, destroys that authority by making the meaning of Scripture dependent upon the judgment of each individual. Rather than the Word of God being the one final court of appeal, the court of appeal becomes the multiplied minds of each believer. One is persuaded that Calvinism is more biblical. The other is persuaded that dispensationalism is more biblical. And by what standard does each decide? The standard is each individual’s opinion of what is biblical. The standard is necessarily individualistic, and therefore the standard is necessarily relativistic. Shape, pp. 246-247.
- Someone might claim that “the science of exegesis” will overcome this problem. But the evidence does not support that claim. Protestant theologians in many different traditions have been using exegetical methods to support their particular interpretations of Scripture for almost five hundred years. And yet there has been little to no convergence of these various traditions and denominations. Instead new theological positions and traditions have arisen, positions such as dispensationalism, Pentecostalism, open theism, federal vision, etc., each defending itself by the very exegetical methods that are supposed to bring and preserve all Christians in unity. The continued diversification and variegation within Protestantism indicates that exegesis is not capable of establishing or preserving unity among Christians who believe in the inspiration and authority of Scripture. Exegesis has shown itself to be used more within a tradition to support the theological position held by those in that tradition. So the appeal to exegesis only pushes back the question: Whose exegesis? Lutheran exegesis? Calvinist exegesis? Methodist, Anglican, Baptist, Pentecostal, (etc.)? And we have to ask ourselves how much more time would be necessary to falsify the claim that exegesis is capable of unifying all Christians. [↩]
- Mathison writes, “It should go without saying that solo scriptura was not the doctrine of the early Church or of the medieval Church. However, most proponents of solo scriptura would not be bothered in the least by this fact because they are not concerned to maintain any continuity with the teaching of the early Church.” Shape, p. 247. [↩]
- The first recorded use of the term ‘layman’ in the early Church Fathers is found in St. Clement’s epistle to the Church at Corinth, written around AD 96. [↩]
- Quoted in “Solo Scriptura: The Difference a Vowel Makes.” [↩]
- ”Solo Scriptura: The Difference a Vowel Makes.” [↩]
- Shape, pp. 248-249. [↩]
- ”Solo Scriptura: The Difference a Vowel Makes.” [↩]
- Shape, pp. 250-251. [↩]
- In 1 Corinthians 1:13 St. Paul asks, “Is Christ divided?” The obvious answer is “no.” And that answer must remain the same forever. [↩]
- Mathison writes:
The doctrine of solo scriptura also reduces the essential doctrines of the Christian faith to no more than opinion by denying any real authority to the ecumenical creeds of the Church. We must note that if the ecumenical creeds are no more authoritative than the opinions of any individual Christian, as adherents of solo scriptura must say if they are to remain consistent, then the Nicene doctrine of the Trinity and the Chalcedonian doctrine of Christ are no more authoritative than the doctrinal ideas of any opinionated Christian. The doctrine of the Trinity and deity of Christ become as open to debate as the doctrine of exclusive psalmody in worship.
It is extremely important to understand the importance of this point. If the adherents of solo scriptura are correct, then there are no real objective doctrinal boundaries within Christianity. Each individual Christian is responsible to search the Scripture (even though he can’t be told with any certainty what books constitute Scripture) and judge for himself and by himself what is and is not scriptural doctrine. In other words, each individual is responsible for establishing his or her own doctrinal boundaries-–his or her own creed. Shape, p. 249.
- Shape, p. 250. [↩]
- Shape, p. 252. [↩]
- Shape, p. 252. [↩]
- ”Solo Scriptura: The Difference a Vowel Makes,” pp. 25-29. [↩]
- Shape, p. 245. [↩]
- Mathison’s claim here is very much in agreement with that of the Catholic Church. The Catholic understanding of the relation between Scripture and the Church treats Scripture as a treasure entrusted by Christ to the Church, properly known and understood only within the bosom of the Church as explicated by her divinely appointed shepherds. Catholics come to Scripture through the guidance of Holy mother Church. [↩]
- Shape, p. 256. [↩]
- Shape, p. 260. [↩]
- ”We indeed willingly concede, if any discussion arises over doctrine, that the best and surest remedy is for a synod of true bishops to be convened, where the doctrine at issue may be examined.” As quoted in “Solo Scriptura: The Difference a Vowel Makes.” [↩]
- Shape, p. 259. [↩]
- Shape, p. 270-271. [↩]
- Shape, p. 262. [↩]
- Shape, p. 264. [↩]
42. To assert that the Bible is the sole infallible authority, and that the Bible is the final and supreme norm, in no way rules out the necessity or reality of other secondary and penultimate authorities. The Church is one such subordinate authority recognized by the early Church and by the Reformers. The Church was established by Jesus Christ Himself and given authority by Him. Jesus gives the Church an authority of “binding and loosing” that is not given to every member of the Church as individuals. . . . It is only within the Church that we find Scripture interpreted rightly, and it is only within the Church that we find the gospel. Shape, pp. 267-268.
- Shape, p. 272. [↩]
- Shape, p. 273. [↩]
- Cf. 2 Timothy 4:3. [↩]
- ”It is therefore to the Church that we must turn for the true interpretation of the Scripture, for it is in the Church that the gospel is found.” Shape, p. 270. [↩]
- Cf. the Confession of the English Congregation at Geneva (AD 1556), the French Confession of Faith (AD 1559), articles 26-28; the Scottish Confession of Faith (AD 1560), chapters 16 and 18, the Belgic Confession of Faith (1561), articles 27-29, and the Second Helvetic Confession (AD 1566), chapter 17. [↩]
- John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV.i.10 [hereinafter Institutes]. [↩]
- Covenant, Justification and Pastoral Ministry, p. 12. [↩]
- Once again: “When I submit (so long as I agree), the one to whom I submit is me.” [↩]
- Institutes, as quoted by Mathison in “Solo Scriptura: The Difference a Vowel Makes.” [↩]
- Cf. Session 6, Canon 9. [↩]
- We see here again the relevance of the statement, “When I submit (only when I agree), the one to whom I submit is me.” [↩]
- Shape, pp. 272-273. [↩]
- Kevin Vanhoozer writes:
While God’s word is infallible, human interpretations are not. God is in heaven; we are on earth. Situated between heaven and earth, we lack the knowledge of angels. What, then, are our options? (1) Hermeneutical relativism: embrace the interpreter within you and live as they did in the period of the Judges where everyone did what was right in their own eyes (so long as you don’t hurt anyone, presumably!); (2) take the road to Rome and the safety of numbers; (3) join an independent church, where right reading is a function of one’s local interpretive community. None of these options inspires confidence. I propose a fourth possibility: that we set out like pilgrims on the way indicated by our book; that we employ whatever hermeneutical tools available that help us to follow its sense; that we pray for the illumination of the Spirit and for the humility to acknowledge our missteps; and that we consult other pilgrims that have gone before us as well as Christians in other parts of today’s world. “Lost in Interpretation? Truth, Scripture, and Hermeneutics,” JETS 48/1 (March 2005) p. 92.
Vanhoozer’s option (1) is a description of solo scriptura. His option (2) is Catholicism. His option (3) is a description of sola scriptura, where “independent church” replaces denomination. His option (4) is not a fourth theoretical option, but a proposal to search for a way out of the hermeneutical mess. Of course we agree that (1) and (3) are false, for reasons we have explained in this article. And we believe that Vanhoozer’s option (4) leads inevitably to option (2). [↩]
- ”Solo Scriptura: The Difference a Vowel Makes,” pp. 25-29. [↩]
- Shape, p. 260. [↩]
- Shape, p. 276. [↩]
- Shape, p. 261. [↩]
- Shape, p. 270. [↩]
- ”Solo Scriptura: The Difference a Vowel Makes.” [↩]
- John Calvin similarly says:
In this way, we willingly embrace and reverence as holy the early councils, such as those of Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus I, Chalcedon, and the like, which were concerned with refuting errors – in so far as they relate to the teachings of faith. For they contain nothing but the pure and genuine exposition of Scripture, which the holy fathers applied with spiritual prudence to crush the enemies of religion who had then arisen. Institutes, IV.9.8.
The reason Calvin accepts the first four ecumenical councils, but not the following councils, is because the first four, but not the later ones, sufficiently agree with his interpretation of Scripture. This shows again the same problem described above: “when I submit (so long as I agree), the one to whom I submit is me.” In other words, Calvin does not in fact recognize the authority of the first four councils. Rather, he merely ascribes authority to them on the ground that these four councils agree with his own interpretation. [↩]
- Shape, pp. 251-252. [↩]
- In June of 1520 Pope Leo issued the papal bull titled Exsurge Domine in which he warned Luther that he faced excommunication from the Church unless he recanted 41 sentences contained in his writings. Luther responded by publicly burning a copy of this Church document in December of that year. As a result, on January 3, 1521, he was excommunicated. In the Spring of that year, Luther appeared before the Diet of Worms. He was asked by Johann Eck, an official of the Archbishop of Trier, whether he rejected any part of his writings. At first he said, “If I am shown my error, I will be the first to throw my books into the fire.” Eck replied, “Martin, …Your plea to be heard from the Scripture is the one always made by heretics. You do nothing be renew the errors of Wyclif and Hus. . . . Martin, how can you assume that you are the only one to understand the sense of Scripture? Would you put your judgment above that of so many famous men and claim that you know more than they all? You have no right to call into question the most holy orthodox faith, instituted by Christ the perfect lawgiver, proclaimed throughout the world by the apostles, sealed by the red blood of the martyrs, confirmed by the sacred councils, defined by the Church in which all our fathers believed until death and gave to us as an inheritance, and which now we are forbidden by the pope and the emperor to [debate] lest there be no end of debate. I ask you, Martin — . . . do you or do you not repudiate your books and the errors which they contain?” Luther replied, ” . . . Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason — I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other — my conscience is captive to the Word of God.” Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, pp. 143-144 (Mentor, 1950). [↩]
- Shape, p. 278. [↩]
- Shape, p. 278. [↩]
- Shape, p. 279. [↩]
- Shape, p. 279. [↩]
- Shape, p. 280. [↩]
- This same problem faces Kevin Vanhoozer’s attempt to distinguish between magisterial authority and ministerial authority. See his The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Westminster John Knox, 2005). [↩]
- Shape, p. 270. [↩]
- Shape, p. 264. [↩]
- See our previous article, “Ecclesial Deism.” [↩]
- Donum Veritatis, 23. [↩]
75. Among the principal duties of bishops the preaching of the Gospel occupies an eminent place. For bishops are preachers of the faith, who lead new disciples to Christ, and they are authentic teachers, that is, teachers endowed with the authority of Christ, who preach to the people committed to them the faith they must believe and put into practice, and by the light of the Holy Spirit illustrate that faith. They bring forth from the treasury of Revelation new things and old, making it bear fruit and vigilantly warding off any errors that threaten their flock. Bishops, teaching in communion with the Roman Pontiff, are to be respected by all as witnesses to divine and Catholic truth. In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra. Lumen Gentium, 25.
When the Magisterium, not intending to act “definitively”, teaches a doctrine to aid a better understanding of Revelation and make explicit its contents, or to recall how some teaching is in conformity with the truths of faith, or finally to guard against ideas that are incompatible with these truths, the response called for is that of the religious submission of will and intellect. Donum Veritatis, 23.
- Shape, p. 273. [↩]
- ”Solo Scriptura: The Difference a Vowel Makes.” [↩]
- Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, pp. 143-144. [↩]
- Of course the Commander in Chief is under the authority of God, but here we are speaking of ‘final’ only in a certain respect, i.e., within the human society. [↩]
- Hebrews 13:17. [↩]
- Christ did this when He instituted the Eucharist, and when He breathed on them and gave them the authority to forgive sins. Cf. Luke 22:19 and John 20:22-23. [↩]
- Shape, p. 239. [↩]
- ”Solo Scriptura: The Difference a Vowel Makes.” [↩]
- Shape, p. 264. [↩]
- Tertullian, On Prescription Against the Heretics, ch. 19. [↩]
- Ibid., 37. [↩]
- Council of Trent, Session IV. [↩]
- First Vatican Council, Session 3, ch. 2, paras. 8-9. [↩]
- Dei Verbum, 10. [↩]
- Dei Verbum, 10. [↩]
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, 95. [↩]
- Cindy Wooden, “Pope encourages Christians to read Bible,” Catholic News Service (Nov. 14, 2007). [↩]
- See Lumen Gentium, 25. [↩]
- ”Solo Scriptura: The Difference a Vowel Makes.” [↩]
- This does not mean that an infallible doctrine cannot be further developed (i.e. unpacked, unfolded, unveiled, etc.) Anything taught by the Magisterium can be further developed. This is how the Nicene Creed went from the form it had in AD 325 to the form it acquired in AD 381. But development never contradicts what has already been given. If it could, then over the last 2000 years, nothing at all would have been definitively established; the Arians might still turn out to have been right. And in that case, there would have been no point in holding any councils. [↩]
- Shape, p. 276. [↩]
- The Word, Church and Sacraments: In Protestantism and Catholicism, pp. 37-38 (Ignatius Press, 2004). [↩]
- See Scott Hahn’s article titled “The Authority of Mystery: The Biblical Theology of Benedict XVI” in 2 Letter & Spirit, pp. 97-149 (2006). [↩]