The PhD and the Point of Philosophy

Mary Midgley’s Proud not to be a doctor (hat tip to Jason), is a good reminder of what the heck I’m doing at Loyola anyway.

I am not saying that the PhD training isn’t useful. It provides the indispensable skills of the lawyer. It shows you how to deal with difficult arguments, which is necessary in dealing with hard subjects. But that close work doesn’t help you to grasp the big questions that provide its context – the background issues out of which the small problems arose. I think there ought to be a corrective course after the PhD – a course in bypassing details to look at the whole landscape. It’s hard to do this on your own. Today’s academic system, which forces people to write articles without having time to think properly about them, makes this harder. . . .

Institutions which have to examine people train their students in fighting mock battles, and that emphasis on competition has increased out of all measure. No doubt it produces good lawyers. But the philosophers of the past were not just lawyers. They were volcanic phenomena, eccentric thinkers who located new problems and grappled with the issues of their age. Many worked outside universities. Indeed, a number – Hobbes, Berkeley, Mill, Nietzsche – growled explosively about the bad influence that universities have on thought. Today, as more people are being channelled into higher education, is it perhaps time that we looked into this?

The Fatherhood Chronicles LXXXIV

Changes and Sameness

With the onset of the autumnal weather, out came the fall decorations (including some Halloween items like the string of pumpkin lights currently adorning the railing of our front porch). Also with this seasonal change in schematic decor came a little bit of my wife’s OCD with regard to “minimalizing” in our home. Unfortunately, such an impulse was frustrated by two large factors: we’re a books home and the books ain’t going anywhere anytime soon; and we’re a toys home, and not even Anna can bring herself to part with some of the girls’ toys. But she did manage to rearrange some of the furniture and to get rid of two end tables. That means, for me, that “my chair” (in which I do much of my reading, grading papers, and falling asleep) has moved across the room from the northwest corner to the northeast corner and the wall whereon are our icons and the faux mantle on which sits other icons, the vigil lamp, prayer ropes and other devotional detritus.

It certainly feels different to sit there with the icons quite literally looming down on you. Brings you to attention in a way you might not otherwise be brought. But such attentiveness is a good thing. Oh, and my view of the television is now blocked–and that is another good thing for those times when one of us has a desire for entertainment or football and the other has a desire for (always relative) “silence.”

But in the midst of this difference was a bit of the sameness. This morning, after praying morning prayers and reading the Scriptures and the Rule, I was doing some reading on the Fathers, and Anna brought Delaina out to me. I sat there holding her for probably half an hour before I looked at the clock and realized I needed to start getting ready for the day. There in the morning silence, with the lamp down low and the vigil lamp burning, I smiled at her and she smiled back. It reminded me of the same sorts of mornings with Sofie when she was only three months old. I signed the cross on her and thanked God for his goodness to me.

And after many months, Sofie has decided that I can again be the sole parent responsible for putting her to bed. For the past three months, with the upheaval surrounding Delaina’s birth, hosting family, and travel, Sofie’s bedtime routine has been much more irregular than regular, though we fight to maintain the bedtime liturgy. We read stories just like we used to (though now we often do two books instead of just one, and they revolve around Click, Clack, Moo: Cows that Type, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, Kitten’s First Full Moon, or Knuffle Bunny, in that order of preference). We pray just like we used to. And Sofie, most of the time, kisses the icons just like we used to. But now we play classical music instead of Daddy singing Church hymns. And now I sit by her bedside for a few minutes while Bach plays, instead of rocking her and putting her in her crib.

Except for last night. Last night Sofie wanted to be rocked. It had been so long, I’d forgotten how big she’d gotten. She no longer fits comfortably cradled in my arms across my lap. She’s getting too tall. But we rocked while the music played and she eventually just melted into sleep. I put her to bed, in her “big girl bed” (a toddler bed we’ve borrowed from a family at church), signed the cross over her and walked quietly out of the room.

Just like we used to do.

Open Theism and the Essence-Energy Distinction

Clark Pinnock’s 1994 book, The Openness of God (which I read back in seminary shortly after it came out), is considered by many the first shot fired in the open theism debates which have rocked much of the evangelical world.

Open theism (also, open view theism, openness theology, and other similar variations) subscribes to the following tenets:

According to openness theology, the triune God of love has, in almighty power, created all that is and is sovereign over all. In freedom God decided to create beings capable of experiencing his love. In creating us the divine intention was that we would come to experience the triune love and respond to it with love of our own and freely come to collaborate with God towards the achievement of his goals. We believe love is the primary characteristic of God because the triune Godhead has eternally loved even prior to any creation. Divine holiness and justice are aspects of the divine love towards creatures, expressions of God’s loving concern for us. Love takes many forms-it can even be experienced as wrath when the lover sees the beloved destroying herself and others.

Second, God has, in sovereign freedom, decided to make some of his actions contingent upon our requests and actions. God elicits our free collaboration in his plans. Hence, God can be influenced by what we do and God truly responds to what we do. God genuinely interacts and enters into dynamic give-and-take relationships with us. That God changes in some respects implies that God is temporal, working with us in time. God, at least since creation, experiences duration.[1] God is everlasting through time rather than timelessly eternal.

Third, the only wise God has chosen to exercise general rather than meticulous providence, allowing space for us to operate and for God to be creative and resourceful in working with us. It was solely God’s decision not to control every detail that happens in our lives. Moreover, God has flexible strategies. Though the divine nature does not change, God reacts to contingencies, even adjusting his plans, if necessary, to take into account the decisions of his free creatures. God is endlessly resourceful and wise in working towards the fulfillment of his ultimate goals. Sometimes God alone decides how to accomplish these goals. Usually, however, God elicits human cooperation such that it is both God and humanity who decide what the future shall be. God’s plan is not a detailed script or blueprint, but a broad intention that allows for a variety of options regarding precisely how these goals may be reached. What God and people do in history matters. If the Hebrew midwives had feared Pharaoh rather than God and killed the baby boys, then God would have responded accordingly and a different story would have emerged. What people do and whether they come to trust God makes a difference concerning what God does-God does not fake the story of human history.

Fourth, God has granted us the type of freedom (libertarian) necessary for a truly personal relationship of love to develop. Again, this was God’s decision, not ours. Despite the fact that we have abused our freedom by turning away from the divine love, God remains faithful to his intentions for creation and this faithful love was manifested most fully in the life and work of Jesus.

Finally, the omniscient God knows all that can be known given the sort of world he created. The content of divine omniscience has been debated in the Christian tradition; between Thomism and Molinism for example. In the openness debate the focus is on the nature of the future: is it fully knowable, fully unknowable or partially knowable and partially unknowable? We believe that God could have known every event of the future had God decided to create a fully determined universe. However, in our view God decided to create beings with indeterministic freedom which implies that God chose to create a universe in which the future is not entirely knowable, even for God. For many open theists the “future” is not a present reality-it does not exist-and God knows reality as it is.

This view may be called dynamic omniscience (it corresponds to the dynamic theory of time rather than the stasis theory). According to this view God knows the past and present with exhaustive definite knowledge and knows the future as partly definite (closed) and partly indefinite (open). God’s knowledge of the future contains knowledge of that which is determinate or settled as well as knowledge of possibilities (that which is indeterminate). The determined future includes the things that God has unilaterally decided to do and physically determined events (such as an asteroid hitting our moon). Hence, the future is partly open or indefinite and partly closed or definite and God knows it as such. God is not caught off-guard-he has foresight and anticipates what we will do.

Our rejection of divine timelessness and our affirmation of dynamic omniscience are the most controversial elements in our proposal and the view of foreknowledge receives the most attention. However, the watershed issue in the debate is not whether God has exhaustive definite foreknowledge (EDF) but whether God is ever affected by and responds to what we do. This is the same watershed that divides Calvinism from Arminianism.

[1] It is not essential for open theists to take a stand on whether or not God was temporal prior to creation. Even if God was eternally temporal God did not experience metric (measured) time until the creation. See Nicholas Wolterstorff’s discussion in God and Time: Four Views, ed. Gregory Ganssle (Downers Grove, ILL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), p. 233.

– Dr. John Sanders

Open theists primarily, it seems to me, are trying to reconcile two things, God’s omniscient foreknowledge with human libertarian freedom. Unfortunately, they are doing so within a theological paradigm that is inimical to their efforts, for it creates further problems over those they are apparently solving.

The problematic definitional paradigm is what is called definitional divine simplicity. This understanding of God posits that since God is simple he cannot have parts, he cannot be divided. Thus any qualities or characteristics that God has must be indentical to his essence or nature. That is to say, God doesn’t just have love, he is love. And if this is true–that all God’s qualities are identical to his nature or essence–then all his qualities are themselves identical to one another: God’s love is his foreknowledge is his omnipotence, etc. Thus, what God knows God must, in omnipotential essence, bring about. If God foreknows those who will be saved and be damned, then those who will be saved and will be damned must be saved or damned without failure–else God is not omnipotent. But if the saved and damned must be saved and damned, they are so apart from anything contingent to God’s nature, for this would mean that something external to God was more powerful than God and could frustrate his omnipotence. Critics of open theism, then, rightly (at least within their own paradigm) point out that open theism must necessarily deny to God either his omniscience or his omnipotence if they, open theists, are, indeed, going to maintain libertarian free will.

And, in fact, that is something like what open theists do. That is to say, they do not actually deny God’s omniscience, but rather redefine it in such a way so that God can only know that which it is possible to know. Since future human choices are undetermined and free, God cannot know them, since it is not possible to know them.

Now, as can be seen from above, open theists recognize that this opens up a rather smelly can of worms, so they are forced into admitting that some things God does infallibly foreknow since he has predestined them, but others he does not foreknow since he has left that to human libertarian freedom. His knowledge of the future is definite, but not exhaustive. And of course they also must clarify the relationship between God and time, since if God is timeless the future is not future to him, but all times are present to him. But this would mean that God does, indeed, know all that can be known of the (to us) future choices and acts of human beings, specifically what they are (though they are as yet unknown to us). But then if God does foreknow them he must predestine them and must omnipotently bring them about.

Now, let me admit that this is a very superficial synopsis of some of the questions to/criticisms of open theism and open theist responses. As will be seen in the links below and in the scholarly literature, there are significant and sophisticated philosophical and theological positions taken and defended. It is not my intent to engage them here.

But I do think that the primary problem in all this is the reliance upon definitional divine simplicity by all the participants in the debate. The resolution to this problem, for those concerned with human libertarian freedom, is not to redefine foreknowledge and omniscience per se, nor to reformulate God’s relationship to time. Rather, the resolution is to abandon definitional divine simplicity.

There is another ancient view of God’s simplicity which understands that simplicity not to be definitional but to be symbolic–that is to say, the verbal icon of a great mystery. God is, indeed, one and without parts. But that is not to say that God’s nature and God’s qualities are not really, though ineffably, distinguishable. We may take our clue from the historically orthodox understanding of the Trinity: God is both one nature or essence (ousia) and three Persons (hypostaseis); his plurality does not eliminate his unity, his unity does not prohibit his personality. Thus God is simple, but that simplicity is complex. God has “qualities,” but is without division or parts, for each quality is both distinguishable from his nature and is fully his nature. Just as the Son is distinguishable from the Father and yet both Father and Son are fully God, so love is an eternal manifestation of God’s essence in a divine “characteristic,” a manifestation that is distinguishable from his essence, but in which God fully is as well. And given this distinguishability, God’s love is not the same thing as his omnipotence, is not the same thing as his foreknowledge, is not the same thing as his omniscience, and yet all of them fully manifest the divine nature while being distinguishable from it and from one another.

The technical theological vocabularly is usually summed up in St. Gregory Palamas’ energy-essence distinction, though St. Gregory of Nyssa utilized a nature-power vocabulary, and St. Maximos the Confessor utilized Logos-logoi. (It should be noted that these distinctions of terminology were related to the specific issues with which each of theses saints and Fathers were concerned. But it is ot be noted that the same consensus on the distinction between God’s essence and his “qualities” goes back to the earliest testimonies of the Church and is traceable through the millennium represented by St. Gregory-St. Maximos-St. Gregory Palamas, and on through to the present among the Orthodox Churches.)

So, how does this work into the open theism debate? Open theists rightly intuit that there is a problem in the definitional understanding of God’s divine simplicity. They are right to note that God’s divine sovereignty is not antithetical to human libertarian freedom. But where open theists fail is to fall back on a redefinition of omniscience, foreknowledge and omnipotence. For those who hold the essence-energy distinction in God, we affirm that is is possible for God to will two (or more) eternal and unqualified goods at the same time (for example, his judgment and his mercy). That is to say, he can both know the (to us) future exhaustively and at the same time will human libertarian freedom.

How is this so? We need only look at Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, wherein he both wills his human nature’s good of existence (if it be possible, let this cup pass from me) and his divine nature’s good of cosmic salvation (nevertheless not my will but thine be done). That is to say, Jesus, in his mode of existence as both human and divine, perfectly united his human will with his divine will, thus actualizing two eternal goods: personal human existence which finds its end in God and cosmic salvation.

Thus, open theism’s argument with definitional divine simplicity is on target. Unfortunately, the only resolution to definitional divine simplicity is simply to abandon it for the historically orthodox understanding of God as a unity of distinguishable energies in one essence.

[Note: Here are some other links to open theism. Some of the links on the pages and indices below are expired, but most remain.]

Open Theism Information Site
Omniscience and the Openness of God

Open theism

Pro et contra
Open Theism Index

The Problems of Biblical Reductionism III

3. The Problem of Time and Consensus

Even if, for the sake of charitable discussion, we can ignore the problem of the canon and the problem of hermeneutical authority, in the end, biblical reductionism, or the dogma of sola scriptura, fails to answer the question, By what criterion/-ia does one determine the truth among competing and contradictory interpretations, both presently and through history? That is to say, why does sola scriptura, if it is in fact necessary to Christian faith and practice, fail to achieve and maintain holy consensus over time?

Adherents of sola scriptura, by necessity, are forced to not only admit diversity of belief and opinion but to affirm it and celebrate it. They must do so because sola scriptura necessarily results in divergent, contradictory and mutable doctrines, doctrines which not only contradict contemporaneous beliefs but historical ones as well. I do not mean to give the impression that the Christian faith must be a monochromatic, rigid, verbatim recitation of formulaic confessions. But there is a difference between the diversity of orthodox expression exemplified by St. James’ insistence on the necessity to faith of works, and St. Paul’s rejection of works as the basis of salvation; or St. Gregory of Nyssa’s expression of the plurality of the Godhead in terms of dynamis, and St. Gregory Palamas’ expression of such plurality in terms of energeia–and the pseudo-diversity that contradicts, such as between those Christians who insist that the Eucharistic elements really do become the Body and Blood of Jesus, and those who do not; or those who insist on the sacramental essence of baptism and those who do not. One form of diversity is shaped by the consensus of the mind of Christ in the Church, the other is shaped by private interpretation elevated to co-authority with the Scriptures. Diversity is no excuse for contradiction, and contradiction is the pervasive milieu of sola scriptura.

As St. Paul writes in the Ephesian letter:

And He gave some to be apostles, and some prophets, and some evangelists, and some shepherds and teachers, for the perfecting of the saints, to the work of ministering, to the building up of the body of the Christ, until we all might come to the unity of the faith, and of the full knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of the Christ, in order that we may no longer be infants, tossed to and fro by waves, and carried about with every wind of teaching, by the sleight of men, in craftiness toward the systematizing of error; but speaking the truth in love, we might grow up into Him in all things Who is the head–the Christ, from Whom all the body, joined and knit together by what every juncture supplieth, according to the energy of every single part in measure, maketh for itself the increase of the body, to the building up of itself in love.(Ephesians 4:11-14)

Clearly, then, the contradictions in doctrine and practice among those who adhere to the dogma of sola scriptura mean that sola scriptura cannot achieve the unity of faith, the consensus of the mind of Christ, that is one of the essential characteristics of the Church, as St. Paul here expressly notes. If this consensus does not exist, then the claims of those lacking that consensus to be the Church are suspect.

Some will argue that the picture here in Ephesians 4 is an eschatological one, pointing usually to 1 Corinthians 13:9-12; or, to say it a bit more accurately, the unity of faith St. Paul refers to in Ephesians 4 will not be fully realized until the appearing of Christ. Until then we see in a glass darkly.

But this merely illustrates the problem of time for the dogma of sola scriptura. We should remind ourselves of Jesus’ words to his Apostles:

“But whenever that One, the Spirit of truth, should come, He will guide you into all the truth; for He shall not speak from Himself, but whatsoever He shall hear He shall speak; and He shall announce the coming things to you. That One shall glorify Me, for He shall receive of Mine and shall announce it to you.” (John 16:13-14)

Here Jesus promises his Apostles revelation of all the truth by the Holy Spirit. We can only assume that the promise to the Apostles was fulfilled. But if the promise was fulfilled, then unity of faith was a reality for the apostolic Church. The question we must ask then, in light of all the contradictions of belief and practice among present-day Christians, is, what happened to that unity of faith? If it no longer exists, then we must assume that the Church no longer exists. But if we cannot ascribe to the belief that the Church no longer exists, then we must also maintain that neither has the unity of faith been lost.

Sola scriptura fails to realize the unity of the faith that is an essential characteristic of the Church. It fails both in terms of consensus, and in terms of time. For either it must deny the consensus of the faith to which Scripture clearly testifies as a fulfilled reality for the Church, or it must deny that the unity of the faith of the Church can be maintained over time. So, either heresy and schism must be stronger than the faith of the Church, or time must be stronger.

And, in fact, this is precisely one presumption upon which sola scriptura rests: that the pure faith of the Church, and thus its consensual unity, was lost subsequent to the time of the Apostles. (Though it must be recognized that adherents of sola scriptura differ among themselves when and to what extent this Church lost the purity of her faith and thus consensus with the apostolic teaching.) But all this is just another way to say that the unity of the Faith was lost, and with it an essential characteristic of the Church. And in any case, the onus is upon sola scriptura adherents to demonstrate that their idiosyncratic doctrines are, in fact, the mind of the Church. They can only do so by either appealing to the Scriptures apart from or by privileging their idiosyncratic interpretations over any historic consensus of the Church, and thus force upon the Scriptural texts, and themselves, conformity to private interpretation. To the extent that sola scriptura adherents justify their own interpretations by appeal to the historic consensus of the Church, they simply give witness to the unity of the faith, the consensus of the mind of Christ, that has remained through time.


As I have argued from the beginning: The primary problem with sola scriptura is that it is not to be found anywhere within Scripture, nor, I might add here, within any testimony of the Church of the first millennium, prior to the Great Schism. It is thus a dogma that is extra-scriptural and extra-traditional and either refutes itself on its own terms, or begs the question of the authority of the one asserting the dogma as a norm for all Christians.

But even if we accept sola scriptura on its face for the sake of discussion, I have shown that there are three other problems fatal to the dogma of sola scriptura: the canon, hermeneutical authority, and consensus over time. Since sola scriptura cannot resolve these problems, it cannot provide an authoritative voice to the Church of the will of God. It is, then, simply a polemical tool in the hands of those who wield it to set aside the authority of the Church, which is to say, the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church, who led the apostles into all the truth. It is also to deny the perseverance of the Church and her Faith through time. For these reasons, and its own internal contradictions, sola scriptura is not a Christian doctrine.

Note: The previous two installments are The Problems of Biblical Reductionism I and The Problems of Biblical Reductionism II

And the following are some other of my recent musings on Scripture and Tradition.

The Problems of Biblical Reductionism II

2. The Problem of Hermeneutics

Biblical reductionists, or adherents of sola scriptura, cannot answer, and for the most part do not even try to answer, an extremely important question: What hermeneutical method is the “biblical” one? That is to say, since the Bible is never uninterpreted, what is the right way to interpret it, and on what authority can this claim be made?

In the narrow view of sola scriptura, where every belief and practice must be founded on explicit or inferential biblical precedent, this is mostly a matter of inconsistency; these adherents do not practice fully what they preach. For surely, if there were ever an inescapably essential belief and practice that must be established on the basis of Scripture alone, it would be that of the proper way to interpret Scripture. In the broader view of sola scriptura, where beliefs and practices must not contradict Scripture but where there is otherwise latitude if they do not, this is far less of a practical problem, or one of inconsistency per se. But it remains a problem for all positions along the spectrum of sola scriptura in that it ultimately elevates not Scripture itself but the private interpreter or his group over the Tradition and over Scripture itself. That is to say, biblical authority rests, necessarily for sola scriptura adherents, on the interpretation an individual or group derives from the Scripture.

In the narrow view of sola scriptura all of Tradition is seen as antithetical to Scripture in that Tradition is understood as originating in man, while Scripture has divine origins. Thus, to adhere to Tradition, especially when such beliefs or practices are not clearly enunciated or directly inferred from Scripture is tantamount to elevating human opinion over divine revelation. But as I noted in the previous post, sola scriptura adherents, especially those who hold the narrow view, cannot escape that they are necessarily adhering to extra-scriptural Tradition (which in their view would be mere human opinion) in the acceptance of the canon of Scripture. In the broader view of sola scriptura Tradition is seen as necessarily subordinate to Scripture, or rather, to the interpreter’s (or his group’s) explanation of Scripture; for while many beliefs and practices which are not clearly enunciated in Scripture or directly inferred from it (such as the use and veneration of icons) may well be allowed and even encouraged, it is Scripture, or, rather, its interpretation, that sets the bound for Tradition, and not Tradition for the understanding of Scripture.

By on the one hand cutting off Scripture from Tradition and on the other hand subordinating Tradition to Scripture, the private interpreter or his interpretive group is elevated over Tradition, and, by corollary, even over Scripture. For in the final analysis, Scripture means what the interpreter or his group takes it to mean. For objective evidence of this assertion, one may simply note the plethora of distinctive and contradictory “study Bibles” each parsing Scripture through their own interpretive grid.

This is precisely why Scripture itself disallows private interpretation, as we read in 2 Peter 1:20:

Knowing this first, that every prophecy of Scripture cometh not out of private explanation, (2 Peter 1:20)

“Private” here is the Greek idios, which refers to one’s own, what we might call “idiosyncratic,” individualistic. And “explanation” translates a New Testament hapax legomena, epilusis, which occurs only about three dozen times in the extant literature, mostly in various fragmentary texts, though two primary instances are in Aeschylus, Seven Against Thebes line 130 (where it indicates a release from fear), and here in 2 Peter (where it means an explanation).

Some object here noting that we cannot but help reading and working to understand the Scriptures for ourselves, and that this will necessitate “privately” interpreting the Scriptures. And in any case, this text isn’t talking about reading the Scriptures per se but about proclaiming Christological prophecies. So this text isn’t really about forbidding individuals interpreting the texts on their own, but forbidding private prophetic utterances regarding the Christ. But let’s note the full context:

For we did not follow fables which have been cleverly devised, but we became eyewitnesses of that One’s majesty and made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. For having received from God the Father honor and glory, there was borne along by the magnificent glory such a voice to Him, “This is My Son, the Beloved, in Whom I am well pleased.” And we heard this voice which was borne along from out of the heaven, when we were with Him in the mount, the holy one. And we have the prophetic word made more sure, to which ye do well to take heed, as to a lamp shining in a squalid place, until the day should dawn and the morning star should rise in your hearts: Knowing this first, that every prophecy of Scripture cometh not out of private explanation, for prophecy not brought about at any time by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke while borne along by the Holy Spirit. (2 Peter 2:16-21)

Notice the plural “we” that is used throughout. Notice that the author (which I assume to be St. Peter) pointedly affirms that he (and the others with him, namely, James and John) were eyewitnesses of the Transfiguration. Note that he enjoins upon his readers the authority of his eyewitness account (“ye do well to take heed”), and that this eyewitness account was not some sort of idiosyncratic fantasy, or the assertion of personal authority, but the divine revelation of God prophesied and now fulfilled in the apostolic community.

In other words, this text is all about authority, specifically apostolic authority. And note that this authority is received and transmitted. No single individual can claim this authority but it must be manifested in the apostolic community. The principle of hermeneutics in the Church, the proper method of interpretation, is to have this mind that is in Christ, to have the unity of the faith and not to be carried about by every wind of doctrine. It is to submit ourselves and all our lives to Christ our God as he has revealed himself to his disciples, as far as they were able to bear it, and from whom we receive both the revelation and its meaning.

In other words, the Faith (here summarized in the Transfiguration) is received from approved men (the apostles) into the community formed, shaped and led by them. Individuals, no matter how charismatic or forceful, do not have the authority to provide their own idiosyncratic determinations of God’s revelation.

To say it bluntly and clearly: there is no private interpretation in the Church, but all interpretation must be submitted to and through the apostolic community. Sola scriptura adherents, however, necessarily and inescapably violate this norm. They do so either by cutting off Scripture from Tradition, or they do so by subordinating Tradition to the Scripture, making Tradition coextensive with the interpreter’s (or his group’s) explanation of Scripture.

In other words, on the historic Church’s view, there is one single thing, which we term Tradition, and Scripture is one manifestation of that single Tradition. There is no subordination of Scripture to Tradition or Tradition to Scripture, but both are expressions of the authority of the apostolic community, the instantiation of the divine life of the Spirit in the Church. Scripture means what the Church, the apostolic community, says it means, not because the Church is the official institution of the religion, nor because the Church wrote the Scriptures, but because the one divine mind of Christ permeates all, the Church, the Scriptures and the Tradition. It is all one single expression of the Truth that Christ is.

The dogma of sola scriptura necessarily cannot instantiate this mind of Christ, for it is not found in it, either in the Scriptures or in the Tradition. Which is why sola scriptura can only foster private, idiosyncratic interpretation, which relies on the personal authority or force of the interpreter or his group. It is also why sola scriptura can offer no solution to the problem of discrepant and contradictory interpretations.

[Next: 3. The Problem of Time and Consensus]

The Problems of Biblical Reductionism I


By the “problem of biblical reductionism” I mean the narrowing of dogmatic and pragmatic authority to the text of the Scriptures. It is an attempt to guard against the “traditions of men,” but is ultimately self-defeating and self-refuting. Its primary instantiation is in the dogma of sola scriptura.

I will say it clearly and bluntly: the Protestant dogma of sola scriptura is an invention of men; it is not from God. Indeed, the human tradition of sola scriptura is a hindrance to faith and salvation. This is true for many of the variations of sola scriptura one finds, whether the more open form which accepts historical traditions of the Church so long as they don’t go against Scripture (or, rather, against a particular interpretation of Scripture), or the more narrow form which demands that every belief and practice be justified by explicit propositions or inferential arguments from Scripture.

The primary problem with sola scriptura is that the dogma itself is not to be found anywhere within Scripture. If sola scriptura is taken in its more narrow form, then it is an extra-Scriptural dogma, and thus is self-refuting. If sola scriptura is taken in its broader form, it is question-begging circularity since it first must assume what it later concludes.

But there are three other problems that are fatal to the dogma of sola scriptura: the definition of what exactly is scriptura, i.e., the extent of the biblical canon; the question of hermeneutical methodology, i.e., the problem of proper interpretation of the Scripture on which sole basis we are to form dogma and practice; and the lack of a criterion (or of criteria) through which to decide disputed interpretations. Since sola scriptura cannot answer the questions of canon, interpretive methodology and interpretive criterion/-ia, the dogma of sola scriptura cannot do that which it is intended to do: to provide an authoritative voice to the Church of the will of God. It is, then, simply a polemical tool to criticize and neutralize the Tradition of the Church with which sola scriptura adherents disagree.

1. The Problem of the Canon

The question sola scriptura cannot answer is: What, precisely, is the Bible? That is to say, what books make up the Bible?

There are very few explicit references in Scripture in which particular books claim (for themselves or other books) divine inspiration. St. Paul in 2 Timothy 3:14-17 claims that all Scripture is inspired (“God-out-breathed”), but does not otherwise list those books (and does not claim that 2 Timothy itself is part of that Scriptural canon.) St. Peter seems pretty clearly to include St. Paul’s letters in with the rest of Scripture (2 Peter 3:15-16). But once again, we do not have a list of letters that are considered part of the canon of Scripture. Should we also include the epistle to the Laodiceans (Colossians 4:16)?

This scenario is exacerbated, for us in the positivist modern world, in that the canon of Scripture was largely assumed more than it was codified. We know that some books, such as the Shepherd of Hermas, quite popular in the early Church but which we do not now consider canonical, were viewed alongside what we now know as canonical New Testament books as having similar authority. Other books that we now view as canonical, such as the Revelation, were in dispute for centuries.

This is further illustrated by the place (or lack thereof) in our own Bibles today of the so-called “Apocrypha” or “Deuterocanonicals”–the books of Tobit, Judith, the books of Maccabees (two, three or four?), the additions to Esther and Daniel, Baruch and the Letter of Jeremiah, the books of Esdras, Psalm 151, the prayer of Manasseh, Ecclesiasticus and Wisdom. For most of the Church, and for most of the first millennium and a half of the life of the Church, these books were viewed as part of the Scriptures. Indeed, some of our earliest codices of complete Scriptures bind them with the rest of the (undisputed) Old Testament books and the New Testament.

The, to us, seeming uncertainty of the extent of the canon is further aggravated by the fact that neither in the East nor in the West did an ecumenical synod decree about the canon for more than a millennium—though individuals, such as St. Athanasios, and local synods did enumerate the canon, and the consensus of the Church on the canon is clear and settled by the fourth century: all of the (undisputed) Old Testament, most of the so-called “apocrypha” (with 3 and 4 Maccabees and 2 Esdras remaining in some doubt), and all of the New Testament. Both Origen and St. Jerome indicate that the “apocrypha” are not found in the Hebrew canon and themselves hold them in some doubt, but both include them in their editions of the Scriptures–thus testifying to their acceptance by and use in the Church as a whole.

It wasn’t until Luther’s and other Reformational polemical attacks on the “apocrypha” that they were ever held as not being part of the Scripture. But Luther’s own credibility on the matter is suspect as he, himself, based on his own subjective criteria, rejected the apostolic authority of Hebrews, Jude, and Revelation, though he thought they were “fine” books, and placed them at the end of his New Testament. The epistle of James, however, Luther stated is “flatly against St. Paul and all the rest of Scripture.” So Luther rejects a book that had never been in serious doubt in the early Church–and on no other authority than his own personal understanding of the Gospel.

In fact, in the original 1522 preface to his New Testament, Luther further opined on the New Testament canon:

John’s Gospel is the one, tender, true chief Gospel, far, far to be preferred to the other three and placed high above them. So, too, the Epistles of St. Paul and St. Peter far surpass the other three Gospels — Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

In a word, St. John’s Gospel and his first Epistle, St. Paul’s Epistles, especially Romans, Galatians and Ephesians, and St. Peter’s first Epistle are the books that show you Christ and teach you all that is necessary and good for you to know, even though you were never to see or hear any other book or doctrine. Therefore St. James’ Epistle is really an epistle of straw, compared to them; for it has nothing of the nature of the Gospel about it.

(I should note that Luther apparently removed these words in his 1545 preface, but it is clear that he hardly moved away from this opinion in general. I should also note that other Reformers rejected Luther’s judgments on the canonicity of the books he rejects.)

Luther illustrates quite perfectly the polemical nature of sola scriptura. The dogma cannot determine the extent of the canon, and ultimately, its use is to restrict those texts that go against one’s own theological positions. The “apocrypha” are rejected in the Reformation, in part, because they can be used to support prayers for the dead. But if we can reject the “apocrypha” as canonical, then we can reject the support for the teaching of prayers for the dead. But once one buys into such a paradigm, it will work out to its logical conclusion, as Luther demonstrates. By rejecting, or simply ignoring and downplaying the importance of, biblical texts that oppose one’s theological positions, one must eventually box oneself into a narrow Marcionite prison of presuppositions.

Sola scriptura adherents simply fail to acknowledge that the canon is not derived from sola scriptura but from the received authority of the Tradition of the Church. They then use the Tradition (the canon) and a polemical device (sola scriptura) to oppose those aspects of the Tradition they misunderstand or with which they disagree.

That the question of the canon cannot be settled by the dogma of sola scriptura, and the fact that sola scriptura adherents absolutely depend upon the traditional New Testament canon is not only a delicious irony, but the utter defeat of their dogma of sola scriptura.

[Next: 2. The Problem of Hermeneutics]