The Rule of Scriptural Interpretation: Antiquity, Ubiquity, Consensus

In my interaction with other bloggers, I find myself coming again and again to the Protestant dogma of sola scriptura. As can be seen on this blog, this is something about which I’ve thought often and wrote about almost as often.

But one problem of sola scriptura that I touched on in a previous post has to do with the lack of consensus that sola scriptura can generate. Given both that Scripture is always interpreted and that sola scriptura cannot generate a single (set of) interpretive practice(s), it is left to each successive generation of sola scriptura advocates to reinterpret the Scriptural texts anew. But here an inescapable dilemma arises: If they appeal to the Tradition to authorize their interpretation, then they privilege the Tradition over Scripture, but all forms of sola scriptura necessarily assert the primacy of Scripture over the Tradition–for even where Tradition agrees with Scripture, it is Scripture which authorizes the Tradition. But if they appeal to their own idiosyncratic interpretations, they privilege the authority of their interpretation over both the Scripture and the Tradition.

So what is the ancient Christian standard for biblical interpretation? St. Vincent of Lerins tells us:

[4.] I Have often then inquired earnestly and attentively of very many men eminent for sanctity and learning, how and by what sure and so to speak universal rule I may be able to distinguish the truth of Catholic faith from the falsehood of heretical pravity; and I have always, and in almost every instance, received an answer to this effect: That whether I or any one else should wish to detect the frauds and avoid the snares of heretics as they rise, and to continue sound and complete in the Catholic faith, we must, the Lord helping, fortify our own belief in two ways; first, by the authority of the Divine Law, and then, by the Tradition of the Catholic Church.

[5.] But here some one perhaps will ask, Since the canon of Scripture is complete, and sufficient of itself for everything, and more than sufficient, what need is there to join with it the authority of the Church’s interpretation? For this reason,-because, owing to the depth of Holy Scripture, all do not accept it in one and the same sense, but one understands its words in one way, another in another; so that it seems to be capable of as many interpretations as there are interpreters. For Novatian expounds it one way, Sabellius another, Donatus another, Arius, Eunomius, Macedonius, another, Photinus, Apollinaris, Priscillian, another, Iovinian, Pelagius, Celestius, another, lastly, Nestorius another. Therefore, it is very necessary, on account of so great intricacies of such various error, that the rule for the right understanding of the prophets and apostles should be framed in accordance with the standard of Ecclesiastical and Catholic interpretation.

[6.] Moreover, in the Catholic Church itself, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all. For that is truly and in the strictest sense “Catholic,” which, as the name itself and the reason of the thing declare, comprehends all universally. This rule we shall observe if we follow universality, antiquity, consent. We shall follow universality if we confess that one faith to be true, which the whole Church throughout the world confesses; antiquity, if we in no wise depart from those interpretations which it is manifest were notoriously held by our holy ancestors and fathers; consent, in like manner, if in antiquity itself we adhere to the consentient definitions and determinations of all, or at the least of almost all priests and doctors. (St. Vincent of Lerins, The Commonitory, Ch. II)

But since sola scriptura advocates will not be impressed by a standard explicated by a fifth century Christian, let’s examine the consonance of this tradition with the Scriptures themselves.

Our paradigm for this is clearly Acts 15. They were, indeed, guided by the Holy Spirit to consensus. In fact, if you look at the hallmarks of how to discern the proper faith it is clear: antiquity, or the original teaching and experience of the apostolic Church (vv. 7ff), which was also confirmed by the Scriptures; ubiquity, or the prevalance of the teaching or practice everywhere (vv. 7-9 and 12), which was the original practice not just of Peter and the Jerusalem Church, but of Sts. Paul and Barnabas and the Gentile Church; and consensus, that which is believed by all (vv. 25, 28). Note especially that even in the midst of much dispute (v. 7), Sts. Peter, James, Paul and Barnabas, and all of the apostolic leadership, reached agreement, and this went out for the belief and practice of all the Churches.

So, how can we tell the true apostolic teaching? That it has been believed always (antiquity), everywhere (ubiquity), and by all (consensus). These three things demonstrate a teaching or practice to be apostolic and therefore authoritative and infallible.

I have seen–and myself personally known–the anxiety of “getting it right” with regard to Christian faith. Thankfully, I no longer have to run on that endless treadmill.

2 thoughts on “The Rule of Scriptural Interpretation: Antiquity, Ubiquity, Consensus

  1. David:

    Sorry it’s taken so long to get back to you.

    If I understand Fr. George, it appears that his point is that the criterion of the catholic and orthodox faith is the whole people, one expression of which is the bishop of the Church in his teaching. Says Fr. George:

    The conviction of the Orthodox Church that the “guardian” of tradition and piety is the whole people, i.e. the Body of Christ, in no wise lessens or limits the power of teaching given to the hierarchy. It only means that the power of teaching given to the hierarchy is one of the functions of the catholic completeness of the Church; it is the power of testifying, of expressing and speaking the faith and the experience of the Church, which have been preserved in the whole body. The teaching of the hierarchy is, as it were, the mouthpiece of the Church. . . . Only to the hierarchy has it been given to teach “with authority.” The hierarchs have received this power to teach, not from the church-people but from the High Priest, Jesus Christ, in the Sacrament of Orders. But this teaching finds its limits in the expression of the whole Church. The Church is called to witness to this experience, which is an inexhaustible experience, a spiritual vision. A bishop of the Church, episcopus in ecclesia, must be a teacher. Only the bishop has received full power and authority to speak in the name of his flock. The latter receives the right of speaking through the bishop. But to do so the bishop must embrace his Church within himself; he must make manifest its experience and its faith. He must speak not from himself, but in the name of the Church, ex consensu ecclesiae.

    The criterion of Orthodox faith is not some, we might say, academic formula which might otherwise invite private interpretation; i.e., each deciding on his own what things are ancient, everywhere and by all believed. He is right, it seems to me, that this criterion in not an empirical one, but a mystical one. It is one decided from within the Church and not those judging it from outside or from a merely intellectual or formulaic standpoint.

    Having said that, however, I believe that what St. Vincent intended by his “canon” is precisely that which Fr. George describes.

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