Archive for November 5th, 2005

The Pontificator in a recent post cites Anglican John Stott on a ubiquitous rule in Protestantism:

In his book Evangelical Truth (2002), John Stott states the popular rule: “Whenever equally biblical Christians, who are equally anxious to understand the teaching of Scripture and to submit to its authority, reach different conclusions, we should deduce that evidently Scripture is not crystal clear in this matter, and therefore we can afford to give one another liberty.”

The Pontificator is narrowly considering the purported catholicity of Anglicanism. I, however, want to leapfrog from Stott’s comment to the Protestant dogma of sola scriptura and its primary problem and fallacy: private interpretation.

We read in 2 Peter 1:20:

Knowing this first, that every prophecy of Scripture cometh not out of private explanation

While this verse is used to prohibit idiosyncratic interpretations of the Scriptures, it is important to keep in mind the context of this verse:

For we did not follow fables which have been cleverly devised, but we became eyewitnesses of that One’s majesty and made kn own to ou 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 heaven, when we were with Him in the mount, the holy one. And we have this 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 start should arise in your hearts. Knowing this first, that every prophecy of Scripture cometh not out of private explanation, for prophecy was 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 1:16-21)

That is to say, the Gospel is not something received individually, nor just from any source. The Gospel is always already received only from the apostolic witness, which witness itself was communal. St. Peter was not alone in witnessing the Transfiguration. The prophecies of Scripture which spoke of Christ were explained, not on the basis of individual interpretation of the events of Christ’s life, but by the communal apostolic witness of that life.

Scripture is always framed and interpreted by the apostolic witness, not only the Old Testament, but the New Testament as well. As St. Peter goes on to write in this epistle:

But false prophets arose among the people, as also there shall be false teachers among you, who shall introduce privily heresies of destruction, even denying the Master Who bought them, and bring upon themselves swift desctruction. (2 Peter 2:1)


This second epistle, beloved, I now write to you, in which I stir up your sincere mind to be mindful of the words which were spoken before by the holy prophets, and of the commandment of us, the apostles of the Lord and Savior . . . . and be deeming that the long-suffering of the Lord is salvation, even as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom which was given to him, wrote to you, as also in all his epistles, speaking in them concerning these things, in which are some things hard to be understood, which the unlearned and unstable twist, as they do also the rest of Scriptures, to their own destruction. (2 Peter 3:1, 15-16)

That is to say, the private, or even secret, teachings interpreted from the Scriptures that do not conform to the apostolic exegesis, are to be rejected. Biblical hermeneutics is a public, communal and apostolic exercise. There is an historical witness to such an exegesis. And when we substitute our own judgment of what Scripture means for that public apostolic witness, we violate this Petrine norm.

In part, Protestants must advocate for private interpretation because their dogma of sola scriptura requires it. If all belief and practice must be justified or substantited from the Scriptures, then necessarily Tradition is either eliminated altogether or it is relegated to a position not only beneath Scripture but also beneath that of the individual interpreter.

But if the individual interpreter is, ultimately, the final arbiter of the meaning of Scripture, then it necessarily follows that the Scriptures must be perspicacious, that is to say, the individual interpreter must be able to clearly understand all those things it is necessary to understand (cf. the Westminster Confession I.VII).

However, note, if you will, the account of the Ethiopian eunuch:

And Philip ran up and heard him reading the Prophet Esias, and said, “So then dost thou really understand what thou readest?” But he said, “No. How can I, unless someone should guide me?” And he besought Philip to come up and sit with him. (Acts 8:30-31)

Or, recall, if you will, Apollos:

And a certain Jew, by name Apollos, an Alexandrian by birth, an eloquent man, came down to Ephesus, being mighty in the Scriptures. This man, having been instructed in the way of the Lord, and being fervent i nspirit, was speaking and teaching accurately the things concerning the Lord, knowing only the baptism of John. And this one began to speak boldly in the synagogue. And after Aquila and Priscilla heard him, they took him to themselves, and set forth the way of God to him more accurately. (Acts 18:24-26)

Indeed, not even the Apostles themselves, relied on their own interpretations of the Scriptures:

And He said to them, “These are the words which I spoke to you while I was yet with you, that it is needful for all the things to be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms concerning Me.” Then He thoroughly opened their mind to understand the Scriptures. (Luke 24:44-45)

We can see that proper interpretation of Scripture is necessary for those converting, for the converted, and for the Apostles. We can also see that such a proper interpretation comes down from Christ himself, to the community of his apostles and the Church, in a communal witness. Being regenerate does not guarantee one any more certainty or clarity of private interpretation than it does of the unregenerate. St. Apollos needed his private interpretation on baptism corrected so that it conformed to the apostolic witness from St. Paul guarded and kept by Sts. Priscilla and Aquila. But even being an Apostle does not guarantee one certainty and clarity of private interpretation. Even the apostolic witness is a communal enterprise. As St. Paul writes:

But even if we, or an angel from out of heaven, should preach a gospel to you besides that Gospel we preached to you, let such a one be anathema. As we have said before, and now again I say, if anyone preach a gospel to you besides what ye received, let such a one be anathema. (Galatians 1:8-9)

The point of all this has been to demonstrate that the elevation of private interpretation of the Scriptures to an authority greater than that of the communal apostolic witness is contrary to the life of the Church, and to the explicit Scripture itself. The point has not been to eliminate individual reading, wrestling and coming to understand the Scripture. These are indispensable to the life of the Christian. But such individual reading, wrestling and coming to understand the Scriptures must be bounded and shaped by the apostolic tradition. There is a public record throughout these two thousand years of what the Church has received from the Apostles. If our private interpretations do not conform to that record of Faith, then we must abandon such private interpretations for the fullness of the apostolic tradition.

This is where the “rule” that Stott expresses above runs to ground. For perspicacity will always ultimately be in the eye of the interpreter. To determine that in Scripture which is or is not clear on salvific matters is not for the individual to make. Take a look at Protestantism and the matter of baptism. If there ought be anything so clear, in matters of salvation, to the individual, it ought be baptism. But there is no unanimity among Protestants on the matter. Liberty then becomes not freedom but slavery. One might posit something like the liberty of conscience, but such freedom is bought at the price of bondage to ignorance. The circle of perspicacity grows ever smaller as the Gospel is whittled down to nothing more than personal preference. Though the rule Stott expresses might have enjoyed a certain plausibility, even among evangelicals, earlier in the prior century, surely the last few decades have witnessed the utter incompetency of this rule to do anything so important as witness to let alone establish a common faith.

No, we need something far less frail, far less prejudiced and far less prone to the passions than the individual interpreter. We need, bluntly, Tradition to set us right.

Nor is it a matter of setting the Tradition over against the Scripture. Sola scriptura advocates like to pull this rhetorical move. They will accuse Orthodox of making Tradition more authoritative than the Scripture. On the contrary, quite the opposite. For Orthodox the Scripture has all the authority and esteem that Protestants give to it. Orthodox too understand the Bible to be infallible, the written revelation of God. They too understand that all dogmatic pronouncements must be consonant with Scripture. Nor do they think Tradition to have a higher place than Scripture–because the Scripture is Tradition. It is not the whole of it, but it is Tradition, that which has been received and passed on.

No, the primary difference between sola scriptura advocates and Orthodox is not their views on Scripture, it is not their views on Tradition, even though there are admittedly some important distinctions between those views. Rather, the primary difference between Orthodox and sola scriptura advocates is their views on the individual interpreter. Sola scriptura advocates hold the individual interpreter to a level of competency and authority that we do not. Which is ironic. For many sola scriptura advocates will heartily set forth the total depravity of man, and criticize the Tradition as being founded on human (fallible) tradition. Yet they reserve to the individual interpreter all the authority and inspiration of the original apostles. The individual Christian is better able to interpet the Scripture, they will claim, than the inherited interpretations of the apostolic community over two millennia. For sola scriptura advocates, the individual interpeter is, indeed, god-like in his ability to interpret the written revelation of God.

Orthodox don’t think so. Rejecting total depravity, affirming the human capacity for synergy with the work of God, Orthodox yet hold a rather dim view of the individual interpreter’s ability to accurately interpret the Scriptures. Best always to submit one’s interpetation to the canon of the Tradition. For as St. Peter clearly indicates in his epistle, when individual teachings depart from that of the apostolic witness, heresies result. There have been enough heresies through the centuries. No need to add any more.


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