Sola or Solo Scriptura? (And Other Questions That Don’t Make Grammatical Sense)

montoyaFollowing my recent thoughts on Lutheranism and the inherent problems of sola Scriptura, the events that have swept us all up here in America have overshadowed my desire to delve back into this too terribly deeply. There just is not enough time in the day for me to rant endlessly on the internet and repent, and tragedies like the one in Connecticut this past week serve as a good reminder that I do far too much of the former and far too little of the latter. Be that as it may, there are a couple of thoughts still sticking out from this discussion that I want to briefly address. My apologies in advance for not being as attentive and responsive as usual to the conversation in the com boxes.

Several people have suggested that I am perhaps not being fair to Lutherans by judging them based on my experience of this one set of people talking about this one particular passage. I am certainly no expert on Lutheranism, so it is entirely possible that I am in error in my understanding of it, but my argument is not based solely on one particular conversation about one particular set of verses. I have spent a good deal of time thinking about this in the past year, reading the Lutheran confessions and various Lutheran thinkers over the centuries to try to get a handle on it. The argument over Luke 7 simply serves as a convenient example with which to show what seems to me to be a problem so endemic to Protestantism as a whole that even its most “tradition-positive” tradition cannot help but succumb to it.

Likewise, a couple of people noted that differences of opinion over John the Baptist’s state of mind when he was in prison are not particularly consequential and certainly not something worth breaking fellowship over. I concur with that assessment, and I certainly was not trying to suggest that every single passage of Scripture has one and only one definite interpretation that has been locked down since the fourth century. My point was rather that this sort of disregard for the weight of the Church’s teaching about Scripture leads to all sorts of unforeseen consequences. I had a conversation recently with a Messianic Jew who tried to tell me that Jesus’ statement in John 14:6 – “I am the way, and the truth, and the life…” – was not actually Jesus affirming His own divinity by identifying Himself with the divine name I Am, but rather was just His way of saying to the rest of us that we should do like Him and look to Yahweh to be the way, the truth, and the life. When I tried to dissuade him of this notion by citing the way the Church has always read this passage, his response to me was fairly similar to that of my Lutheran friends. “Sure, that’s how some people have read it, but that doesn’t mean they’re right. Scripture alone!”

Here then is where the real parsing comes in, because inevitably at this point in the conversation someone will say, “Yes, but what you’re describing is solo Scriptura, not sola Scriptura.” The person who says this usually goes on to argue that what the average Protestant practices today in thinking that he or she can just go off with the Bible and know what it says is solo Scriptura, which is something foreign to the Reformation. Real Reformational Protestants understand that sola Scriptura is not about reading the Bible and interpreting it all by yourself but about reading the Bible within its context, informed by tradition and scholarship and the teaching of the Church, but recognizing that it is ultimately its own authority.

There are three ways in which I find this distinction problematic: It fails grammatically historically, and logically.

First, the grammatical problem. I realize that this is a bit nit-picky, but if you are going to try to come up with a way of describing how the other guy’s position differs from yours, it helps to use a term that is not a synonym of the one you are already using. “No, no, we believe in Scripture alone, but they believe in Scripture by itself!” Sola is from the Latin word solus which means alone. Solo is a modern English word that evolved from the same Latin word, meaning the exact same thing.

But of course, the very fact that a new term has to be invented is itself an indicator that this distinction is something of a novelty. This is the historical problem. There have always been divisions amongst Protestants about how to understand the Bible. Sixteenth century Lutherans strongly rejected the arguments of Calvinists, Zwinglians, and Anabaptists, all of whom laid claim to the purity of their own appeals to Holy Scripture. Yet, while the Lutherans said that these other groups were wrong because they misunderstood the Scripture, they never suggested that the problem was that these groups were mixed up about the self-authenticating power of Scripture. As far as I can tell, the coining of this term solo scriptura is a twenty-first century phenomenon. It seems rather strange at this late date to say that there has been a significant difference about this all along and nobody bothered to notice until, like, yesterday.

But of course, the real problem with this newly minted distinction between sola and solo scriptura is the logical problem. What so many serious Protestants decry as the solo scriptura attitude of their co-religionists is nothing more than the logical extension of sola scriptura in its purest form. Keith Mathison, who literally wrote the book on sola versus solo Scriptura, defines what he believes to be the pure Reformation doctrine this way:

To summarize the Reformation doctrine of sola Scriptura, or the Reformation doctrine of the relation between Scripture and tradition, we may say that Scripture is to be understood as the sole source of divine revelation; it is the only inspired, infallible, final, and authoritative norm of faith and practice. It is to be interpreted in and by the church; and it is to be interpreted within the hermeneutical context of the rule of faith.

The tension inherent in this statement comes from the idea that the revelation of God in Scripture can in any way be understood apart from the teaching of the Church. This is the opposite of what Mathison intends, of course. He is actively trying to make a place for the Church, but at the same time he is arguing that the locus of inspiration in Holy Scripture does not extend to the Church’s faithful reading of same. The words on the page are divine, but the Church’s reception of them is flawed and fallible. The Church is necessary, but entirely human.

This reasoning leads invariably to an impoverished understanding of the Church. If the Church is needed for the right reading of Scripture but the Church often errs at the same, it follows that there needs to be some other measure for discovering what a true reading of Scripture really entails. Having the tradition of the Church’s historical interpretation of Scripture on your side is nice, but it does not guarantee anything because the Church could have been wrong all along. So what is the Christian to do? How is he or she to avoid despair?

For some Protestants, the answer has been confessionalism, essentially creating a new church with a new tradition and imbuing the founding documents of that new tradition with an air of infallibility because they are just saying what Scripture says, man. But in a world of competing confessions, each claiming to be nothing more than the pure Word of God explicated, how can we know which voice rings true? The confessionalist can and often does try to make use of tradition to bolster his claim, but he undercuts himself by saying at the start that tradition is subordinate to the words on the page. Only Scripture is trustworthy, and only in a vacuum where the Church cannot defile the Scriptures with her dirty hands. The Bible is a perfect book, so long as nobody ever reads it.

This may strike some as an argument for the papacy, but it is not. There is an opposite error that Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy tend to fall into, and that is the idea that the Church derives and holds authority apart from Scripture, as a kind of second poll of the Word of God. Herein the encyclicals of popes, the scattered thoughts of long dead saints, and even the canons of councils that do such strange things as regulate bathing with Jews suddenly become addendums to God’s Word. This is a grievous error, leading to all kinds of false conclusions and abuses of power.

Nonetheless, the Church’s interpretation of the Scripture is part of the divine revelation in the same way that the mouth and the voice are a part of speaking lines in a play. The actors must read the words as printed, without ad libbing new material, but the way a word is said, the inflection used and the tone struck, can create great variety in what is communicated to the audience. In the historical, catholic, and conciliar view, the Holy Spirit is not merely the writer of the play but also the director, making sure that the words He entrusted to the page are faithfully rendered in their performance. In the Protestant view, the Holy Spirit remains the writer, but the director could really be anyone. In both views, there is a clear desire to get the words right, but in the latter, getting the words right is all that matters.

To be sure, Anglicanism is not immune from this problem, on either end. There have been moments when we have drifted towards the heresy of Rome in making too much of the Church and moments when we have drifted towards the heresy of Protestantism in making too little of her. At our best, though, we have accepted our inheritance of what another blogger recently called prima Scriptura, a doctrine of revelation that acknowledges both the impotence of the Church without the Scripture and the incomprehensibility of the Scripture without the Church. It is in this respect, and perhaps only in this respect, that we can lay claim to Archbishop Fisher’s famous quote, “The Anglican Communion has no peculiar thought, practice, creed or confession of its own. It has only the Catholic Faith of the ancient Catholic Church, as preserved in the Catholic Creeds and maintained in the Catholic and Apostolic constitution of Christ’s Church from the beginning.” Ours is not to invent but to faithfully pass on and apply the Word of God, a Word that exists not only in the theoretical realm but in the actual, concrete, lived reality of the Church’s teaching and life.

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34 Responses to Sola or Solo Scriptura? (And Other Questions That Don’t Make Grammatical Sense)

  1. Good post, and I agree. These are some of the issues that goaded me along my own Canterburry trail….

    As Cyprian said, “He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother.” in his First Treatise on the Unity of the Church. (http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/050701.htm) A very convicting read for a anabaptist-come-Anglican like me.

  2. Ralph Davis says:

    Very good stuff indeed. However, honestly, I don’t see a huge difference between the Mathison definition of sola scriptura, and prima scriptura…when properly understood. The actors in the play do have authority–just not as much as the Playwrite.

  3. MichaelA says:

    It is a shame that in the long article above, arrogantly and nastily ripping into the beliefs of all Protestants without distinction, there is not a single reference to why the Anglican Reformers believed in sola scriptura, nor why the medieval divines believed in it.

    Instead, the author discusses what he thinks the words mean, and what some other people today think they mean. None of the definitions that either come up with appear to relate to what it actually means in our Anglican heritage.

    Very sad.

    “There have always been divisions amongst Protestants about how to understand the Bible.”

    As there have always been divisions amongst the Church Fathers about how to understand the Bible, and divisions among medieval Christians about how to understand the Bible. Protestants are not one whit different to any Christians that came before them.

    “The argument over Luke 7 simply serves as a convenient example with which to show what seems to me to be a problem so endemic to Protestantism as a whole that even its most “tradition-positive” tradition cannot help but succumb to it.”

    Really? My impression was that the argument over Luke 7 demonstrated that neither the Lutherans nor the Anglican in their midst had actually read what the church fathers have to say about handling scripture. Fr Jonathan had read *about* the Church Fathers, which is not the same thing.

    “When I tried to dissuade him of this notion by citing the way the Church has always read this passage, his response to me was fairly similar to that of my Lutheran friends. “Sure, that’s how some people have read it, but that doesn’t mean they’re right. Scripture alone!””

    The fault is yours, because you did not follow the teachings of the Church Fathers (the same mistake you made with the Lutherans). You should have confronted him with scripture read in the context of the rest of scripture – the patristic method. It is hardly surprising that the messianic Jew was unimpressed with an argument based on “the way the Church has always read this passage”, because he would know that each person interprets that differently, to suit their own purpose. .

    I recommend a careful reading of the Homily entitled “A fruitfull exhortation to the reading and knowledge of holy Scripture.” from the first book of Homilies. This was mainly written (and edited and approved in its entirety) by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, two years before the first Book of Common Prayer.

    “Keith Mathison, who literally wrote the book on sola versus solo Scriptura, defines what he believes to be the pure Reformation doctrine this way:…”

    Which is the same definition used by the Church Fathers and the Medieval divines.

    “This reasoning leads invariably to an impoverished understanding of the Church. If the Church is needed for the right reading of Scripture but the Church often errs at the same, it follows that there needs to be some other measure for discovering what a true reading of Scripture really entails.”

    You have not proved (or even attempted to prove) any teaching from Christ or his Apostles that the Church does not err when interpreting scripture. You just gloss over this, and expect us all to assume it. But without that, the rest of your argument is built on sand (or more specifically, on your own private opinion – same thing).

    But you are right – because the Church may err (and I do not need to consider any other possibility until you come up with proof or support for your position), you are right that something more is needed. Have you ever heard of the Holy Spirit? I can assure you that classical protestants have.

    “Nonetheless, the Church’s interpretation of the Scripture is part of the divine revelation in the same way that the mouth and the voice are a part of speaking lines in a play.”

    Thank you for letting us know the teaching of Father Jonathan. Do you have any other source for this assertion?

    “In the historical, catholic, and conciliar view, the Holy Spirit is not merely the writer of the play but also the director, making sure that the words He entrusted to the page are faithfully rendered in their performance.”

    Which is precisely the classic Protestant view.

    “Ours is not to invent but to faithfully pass on and apply the Word of God, a Word that exists not only in the theoretical realm but in the actual, concrete, lived reality of the Church’s teaching and life.”

    Which is precisely classic protestant teaching

  4. MichaelA says:

    I am still seething over the sweeping generalisations and tone of the article above, by someone from whom I expected a higher standard, but I realise that I should not have used the words “arrogantly” or “nastily”. Especially not to a priest who is at the sharp end of leading a congregation. I apologise and withdraw them.

  5. Scott Smith says:

    I thought about adding a note on the other post, didn’t get to it though. Sorry for jumping in here after so much has already been said.

    Anyway, as a Lutheran convert (ELCA–I know some LCMS folks might consider me Lutheran in name only, but oh well), one of the things I’ve appreciated, as opposed to my evangelical background, is the insistence that it’s okay to not know the proper interpretation of every passage; let some passages and concepts be ambiguous. [I appreciated this about Anglican tradition as well, but in a different sense, obviously, with greater reliance upon Tradition].

    Another thing I’ve enjoyed, though perhaps not entirely integrated into my own theological understanding, is the “canon within the canon” concept. I first encountered it in Braaten’s “Principles of Lutheran Theology,” ascribing it to Luther, and have come across it through some of my Profs here, but haven’t followed it up more thoroughly yet. Too vague on the idea myself, yet, to articulate it in any clear way, and I’m back and forth on how I feel about it, but it’s an interesting concept. What I like about it is that it hits on the fact that the Holy Spirit works through Scripture, rather than outside of it. It fits with the FoC points about the Enthusiasts.

    Either way, I greatly enjoy your posts. Keep it up.

  6. Michael,

    Perhaps we’re missing a distinction between a rampant contemporary view among evangelicals that me + bible + holy spirit = infallible or some such notion. It is not usually explicitly stated, but often inferred. Compare this with a conciliar view (one espoused by Cyprian in the treatise I linked above). The idea is that the church gathered (at the least in the gathering of bishops) with the holy spirit stands a much better chance of interpreting scripture rightly.

    Cyprian is pretty adamant about it being the WHOLE church represented, not just one group or another. Now, that’s hard, long, tiring work that moves way to slow for us moderns. Just look at the timelines some of the historic councils followed. Decades in some cases.

    Interpreting scripture with scripture is great. It is a wonderful method and for some passages it is pretty straight forward. Others, not so much….then what?

    Grace & peace,
    Chris+

  7. Jesse says:

    There’s definitely a lot that I disagree with here, both historically and logically (grammatically, you’re on more solid ground, hence I don’t use that terminology :-P). For now, I want to note that this is absolutely fallacious: “As far as I can tell, the coining of this term solo scriptura is a twenty-first century phenomenon. It seems rather strange at this late date to say that there has been a significant difference about this all along and nobody bothered to notice until, like, yesterday.” Historians coin new terms to describe actual historical phenomena all the time, because people often don’t see certain significant divisions of their own time and place that other persons might see from a distant perspective. Also, new questions bring issues to the foreground that might not have been primary in the minds of the original thinkers, but were nonetheless there, and vital.

    There is nothing new in suggesting a division in attitudes toward tradition among the Reformers. While the division between the “Magisterials” and the “Radicals” was often parsed in terms of church and state, really a strong underlying division was precisely this issue of tradition. The way they spoke of it was in terms of the Church’s continuity: Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli all strongly affirmed both the authority and continuity of the Church under Scripture, and saw themselves as calling the already existing but corrupt Church back to purity. The Anabaptists and other Radicals adopted a “Great Apostasy” mindset, suggesting that the Church had largely disappeared from history and that true believers reading Scripture free from such notions of continuity could “recreate” the “true Church” out of thin air. The “Magisterials” (who I like to call the “classical Protestants”) strongly rejected this view, but it blended into magisterial groups through pietist and revivalist movements, and is now running rampant in evangelicalism.

    Also, note that I did not simply make a grammatical distinction in my comment on your previous post. “Scripture alone is final” IS different from “Scripture alone, period,” which is NOT what the Reformers held. Perhaps another important way of stating it is, “Scripture alone is infallible,” which is NOT “Scripture alone is authoritative.” The continual teaching of the Church DID hold the weight of authority for the Reformers, but they focused their eyes on the Scriptures when it came to interpretation and expounding doctrine (though they did use and uphold the classic creeds and modified forms of the historic liturgy), because all true doctrine of the Church rests on the infallible Scriptures. If they sometimes were too adament in that assertion, I think we should remember their context, and not throw out Sola Scriptura with that.

    And frankly, I’m tired of the appeal to diverse Protestant groups from its origination. Yes, the original Reformation project had its problems that worked out in an unfortunate manner (causes of which were not only doctrinal, mind you, but political and geographical as well). And, frankly, I don’t see how Anglicanism doesn’t fall prey to the same criticisms as well, unless one pretends that the divines didn’t consider themselves Reformers or weren’t themselves struggling to define what Scripture and tradition taught. That doesn’t mean we should try our hardest to dismiss the Protestant legacy wholesale.

  8. MichaelA says:

    Chris,

    That’s a very good point.

    I think part of my frustration is that I do get very irritated with protestants (mainly non-Anglican) who throw around terms like sola scriptura or semper reformanda without knowing what they mean, or where they came from, and so sola scriptura ends up meaning “there is no other authority but the bible”, and semper reformanda ends up meaning “lets change things for the sake of change” etc. But then I get dismayed when I find Anglicans essentially teaching the same thing – an ahistorical view of these doctrines!

    We don’t have to agree with everything the reformers taught – they were men like ourselves. But we of all people should at least understand them, and the medieval divines from whom they learned (including e.g. Aquinas and Grosseteste, both of whom taught “sola scriptura”!).

    And whatever the case, I shouldn’t get so frustrated about anything, I know. The Lord is working with each of us, and has a lot of work to do yet.

    • Cadog says:

      Michael – I have so appreciated your contributions to these discussions — I must say I was taken aback by your comments and critical tone of Fr. Jonathan on this thread.

      I have read and re-read your and Fr. Jonathan’s posts to try to understand you better.

      Debate and dialog can be frustrating; emotion over matters of faith, doctrine, and practice can so quickly escalate into harsh words and attitudes (I know this to be true for myself), and worse, as seen in the history of the church.

      Fr. Jonathan is qualified by both education and office to speak on these things. Even if he were not, this is, after all, just a blog. But even at that, I do not think the content or manner of his current and prior posts are too different from the way most of us express our beliefs and differences, most of the time. We use characterizations, generalities, and simple examples to try to illustrate our points. Fr. Jonathan has even acknowledged this, several times. There will always be room to find fault with one another’s arguments, but we should do so respectfully, especially here.

      I say these things in the spirit, I hope, of encouragement that we can help each other learn and grow in faith and love for our Lord.

      Peace and joy this most holy of seasons! — Cadog

      • Jesse says:

        I understand where you are coming from, but to be honest Fr. Jonathan put his foot on a landmine here by contradicting Protestants on… well, what Protestantism TEACHES, in order to distance himself from the label. MichaelA’s posts are obviously impassioned but Fr. Jonathan had no right to expect anything less, and I’m sure he’d agree. Generalities, characterizations, and simple examples can work in places, but that isn’t what Fr. Jonathan did here. He took a label that he deems “other” (Protestantism), argued AGAINST those who identify as that “other” REGARDING what their tradition teaches based upon HIS READING presented as simply “the facts,” pigeonholed all Protestants as representative of their very worst tendencies, and then dismissed the entire project. One of my professors in undergrad once told me of a presentation at the Society of Biblical Literature by a scholar who repeatedly prefaced statements with, “Jews believe…” After his presentation, Amy-Jill Levine (a Jew) stepped up to respond to him and said, “I’m glad that I have YOU to explain to me what JEWS BELIEVE, thank you, because I was at a loss.” Qualifications mean zip when you are in this situation. Criticizing people who are in the room, who may be quite knowledgable about what they believe and what their tradition teaches, is more than simply presenting an argument, and responses cannot simply be judged as such.

  9. Fr. Jonathan says:

    As I mentioned in the first paragraph above, I’m unable to give my fullest attention to this conversation, for which I apologize, but I figured I ought to say something, given that this is quickly devolving from a conversation about Scripture and the role of the Church in interpreting it to a conversation about me and whether or not I like/dislike/understand/misunderstand Protestantism in its various forms. (Incidentally, MichaelA apologized already for the tone of his first post, and so I think we probably ought to let him off the hook.)

    As a priest of what was, until quite recently, the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, I have no great problem with Protestantism as a whole nor with the many gifts that the Reformation has given to the Church. Generally, I don’t tend to call myself a Protestant, but that has more to do with a grammatical rather than a theological distinction. To be a Protestant is to be one who protests, generally one who protests against the sins of Rome, and when that becomes our major identifying characteristic, we allow ourselves to be defined by what we are against rather than what we are for. I prefer some version of the phrase Reformational Catholic, but the inclusion of the term “Reformational” ought to be at least some indicator that I am not trying to paint Anglicanism as being somehow above the Reformation, nor am I trying to throw the continental reformers under the bus.

    That said, there must be room for critical engagement with the Reformation and that means at least being open to the possibility that there are things which the reformers of various stripes simply got wrong. I believe that, largely, the doctrine of Scripture alone is problematic, even if it was well meaning. This is not to say that there are no differences between how Luther and Calvin and Zwingli saw this doctrine and how the later “radical reformers” saw it. Nonetheless, as I tried to make clear, the crucial differences between them on how to understand the role and place of tradition do not betray a difference on the substance of the claim that Scripture is self authenticating. The divine revelation of Scripture is inherent only in Scripture itself, hence the alone part. The Church may be a necessary vehicle and corrective for the errors of individual readers, but there is no divine or revelatory power in the Church’s interpretation, just the weight of long held consensus. This is where the problem lies. Churches that hold strictly to sixteenth century confessions tend to have less of a devolution into me-and-my-bible-ism than others because they have anchored themselves to a much safer moment in time, claiming rather peculiarly that the confession itself is an extension of the Scripture, what Peter Leithart has called the “paper pope.” But a paper pope is limited in its ability to adjust and respond to the life of the world as it is, not as it once was. And so eventually, it becomes necessary for many Protestant Christians either to sink into biblicism or romanism in the hopes of finding an ongoing source of interpretation they can rely upon.

    MichaelA’s criticism is that I do not understand how the Fathers themselves use the Scriptures. It is true that the Fathers run Scripture through everything that they argue. It is not true that they make no mention of what others have taught (see, for instance, Irenaeus’ writings on the place of the episcopate in determining the Catholic Church, as well as the example from Cyprian cited by Chris above.) More to the point, though, the method he advocates would not solve the problem presented by the Luke 7 passage or many others like it. The problem is not that one side has not examined and properly understood the Scriptures. The problem is that both sides have understood the Scriptures in different but equally plausible ways. On the surface, there is nothing wrong with reading Luke 7 as saying that John the Baptist had lost his faith, or reading James as saying that good works are necessary for salvation, or reading “This is my Body” as a metaphor rather than a metaphysical reality. It’s all plausible, but it’s not all right, and the differences sometimes don’t make a difference, but sometimes they make all the difference in the world. And when that happens, how do we know who is right? If the Church does not have an inspired role to play, there is no way of knowing for sure.

    • MichaelA says:

      1. “It is not true that they make no mention of what others have taught”

      I have never suggested otherwise.

      2. “More to the point, though, the method he advocates would not solve the problem presented by the Luke 7 passage or many others like it.”

      I did not of myself advocate any method – I referred you to the method that St Augustine and St Cyril put into practice when considering Luke 7. What do you think of the methodology they employ when commenting on that passage?

      3. “The problem is that both sides have understood the Scriptures in different but equally plausible ways”

      If you read a selected passage of scripture without putting it in the context of the rest of scripture, then that is exactly what will happen: every reading will seem equally plausible. Can you see the marked contrast between your method and that used by Cyril and Augustine?

      Note also, you will get the same problem if you slightly alter your sentence above to read thusly: “The problem is that both sides have understood what the Church says in different but equally plausible ways”

      Now, before you accuse me of disregarding the teaching of the Reformers (who were all very strong on the role of the Church – Calvin for instance makes the point that no-one can be saved apart from the Church), let me add that I agree the church has a role to play in this. The difficulty I have is that your methodology appears to be essentially the same as the protestants: look at a passage in isolation and decide whether it makes sense or not. From that point they go to reason and you go to tradition, but the starting point for both of you is the same. By contrast, Augustine and Cyril FIRST look at the passage in the context of the rest of scripture.

      “And when that happens, how do we know who is right? If the Church does not have an inspired role to play, there is no way of knowing for sure.”

      Then lets start learning from the Church Fathers and putting what they say into practice. That is what I have been advocating in this thread and the last. I can see very little practical difference between what you advocate and the protestantism you criticise. Take the passage you continually cite – what is your problem with what the Church Fathers advocate in relation to that very passage? I just do not understand you.

      • Fr. Jonathan says:

        1. “It is not true that they make no mention of what others have taught”

        I have never suggested otherwise.

        …Augustine and Cyril cite so many scripture references that you will be at it for a long time (and by the way, they never refer to earlier Church Fathers)…

        Your point was, perhaps, that Augustine and Cyril, in speaking specifically about Luke 7, do not quote from earlier Fathers? It seemed to me, from this and your other posts, that you were saying that the Fathers as a whole never refer to earlier Fathers in making pronouncements with authority, which is why I argued against it. If that had not been your intention, I apologize, though I still fail to see the point given that I nowhere suggested that they needed cite other Fathers in order to make their case.

        What do you think of the methodology [Saint Cyril and Saint Augustine] employ when commenting on that passage?

        I have not read Saint Cyril on Luke 7 so I cannot comment on it, but having read Augustine, I think that he does a fine job of explicating the passage in a way that makes sense with the text and that is consistent with what most of the other Fathers that I’m aware of who wrote on this had to say about it.

        If you read a selected passage of scripture without putting it in the context of the rest of scripture, then that is exactly what will happen: every reading will seem equally plausible.

        Of course it has to be placed in context. But even within the context of the rest of Scripture, there is more than one way to read the same passage. This doesn’t mean that every reading is correct. There are multiple layers to Scripture, but even allowing for that, two or more contradictory views cannot all be true. When someone cherry-picks a verse, I think we’d both agree that they haven’t made their case. But it’s also possible to have an entire theology wedded to the words of Scripture that is coherent in and of itself but that is ultimately wrong. And, I would add, it is sometimes impossible to show how such a system is wrong without reference to the authority of the Church to interpret Scripture properly and consistently.

        Can you see the marked contrast between your method and that used by Cyril and Augustine?

        No, I really can’t. Assuming we’re talking here about Saint Cyril of Alexandria, I’m particularly baffled since one of the greatest and noblest things about that great saint was his willingness to accept the Church’s teaching over his own, complying with the Chalcedonian definition even as many of those who followed him chose to pull away into monophysitism.

        Note also, you will get the same problem if you slightly alter your sentence above to read thusly: “The problem is that both sides have understood what the Church says in different but equally plausible ways”

        No, then you get an entirely different problem which has been of great interest to Anglicans ever since the Reformation, the problem of knowing who and what the Church is. But once we are at a stage where the Church is a real, divine institution, even if we have trouble locating it, I believe that is a step forward from the place where we think the Church is nothing more than a word for ‘people who really read their Bibles and know what they mean instead of those [Fill in the blank other kind of Christians] who just aren’t reading what the Bible actually says.’

        Now, before you accuse me of disregarding the teaching of the Reformers…

        Wasn’t planning on it…

        The difficulty I have is that your methodology appears to be essentially the same as the protestants: look at a passage in isolation and decide whether it makes sense or not. From that point they go to reason and you go to tradition, but the starting point for both of you is the same.

        I cannot fathom how you concluded that I believe you should look at passages in isolation without paying attention to the larger context of Holy Scripture. Nor do I think you understand what I mean when I refer to the teaching of the Church. It is not simply tradition but the sacred deposit of faith and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, alive and well in the Church today as much as it was in the first century. I don’t believe the 21st century Church is any less apostolic than the first century Church was.

        Take the passage you continually cite – what is your problem with what the Church Fathers advocate in relation to that very passage? I just do not understand you.

        Apparently, we do not understand each other very well at all. I really don’t have a clue what you’re talking about.

  10. MichaelA says:

    “That said, there must be room for critical engagement with the Reformation and that means at least being open to the possibility that there are things which the reformers of various stripes simply got wrong. I believe that, largely, the doctrine of Scripture alone is problematic, even if it was well meaning.”

    What do the reformers have to do with the doctrine of “scripture alone”? You could just as well blame them for the doctrine of the Trinity – they didn’t invent either.

    Fr Jonathan, I have to ask this, but it is not my intention to be rude, just seeking clarification – do you know what “Sola Scriptura” means, and where it came from?

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      What do the reformers have to do with the doctrine of “scripture alone”? You could just as well blame them for the doctrine of the Trinity – they didn’t invent either.

      This is perhaps the most puzzling thing I’ve ever read. If the reformers did not invent the doctrine of sola Scriptura, then who did? Surely you’re not suggesting that the Bible itself advocates such a position.

      Fr Jonathan, I have to ask this, but it is not my intention to be rude, just seeking clarification – do you know what “Sola Scriptura” means, and where it came from?

      Yes, and yes. But if you’re trying to get at something particular, feel free to go ahead and say it. No offense taken.

  11. MichaelA says:

    Fr Jonathan and Chris Moellering,

    Why would a classical protestant have any problem with the passage cited from Cyprian? Surely you are aware of how much the magisterial reformers agreed with it?

    Are you telling me that you disagree with the following passage?

    “The heavenly Jerusalem, which derives its origin from heaven and dwells above by faith, is the mother of believers. For she has the incorruptible seed of life deposited in her by which she forms us, cherishes us in her womb and brings us to light. She has the milk and the food by which she continually nourishes her offspring. This is why the Church is called the mother of believers. And certainly, he who refuses to be a son of the Church desires in vain to have God as his Father [Cyprian, De Unit. Eccles. 6]. For it is only through the ministry of the Church that God begets sons for Himself and brings them up until they pass through adolescence and reach manhood. This is a title of wonderful and the highest honor.” [John Calvin “Commentary on Galatians” 87-88]

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      The continental reformers, including Calvin, had a high view of the Church. I don’t think anyone would deny that. Calvin and Luther would be mortified to see how modern Protestants disregard the Church in our own day. Nonetheless, many of the reformers, including Calvin and Luther, relativized their understanding of what the Church is to fit their own agendas. The Church was wherever people agreed with their particular understanding of the Scriptures. It’s not a far leap from that to believing that the Church is irrelevant so long as I’ve got my Bible.

      • Aaron says:

        Fr. Jonathan… it’s refreshing to see somebody defend a catholic approach to the Church. I’ve run into a few Anglicans who think that the best approach to the Bible is to use a bit of their own private judgement, or maybe if they are liberal, modern textual criticism, to figure out the meaning of a passage. Yet many of the Fathers have excellent things to say about passages that the more “Protestant” routinely read with spiritually shallow interptetations.

        I just wish more Anglicans had as high view of the Church as you do. People need to realize there were Christians with saving faith, filled with the Holy Spirit before Wittenburg. It’s ugly spiritual pride for modern Christians to assume that their private interpretation is automaticly better. The fact that so few see this as a sin, an obstacle to spiritual growth no doubt contributes to the spiritual immaturity I feel sometimes among “Evangelical” Biblicists. At least the “liberals” realize that some thought and care must go into how we approach the Biblical text and that exegesis not a purely private enterprise.. So much division and emnity has happened in Christendom because somebody latches onto a few pet Biblical passages and uses them as a weapon against another believer.

      • MichaelA says:

        Aaron, classical protestants are fully aware that “there were Christians with saving faith, filled with the Holy Spirit before Wittenburg”. We also know that the Church was filled with people following “their own private interpretation” before Wittenberg too. Plenty who call themselves “catholic” today do exactly what they accuse others of.

  12. Not to mention the discarding of apostolic succession.

    I came from the anabaptist tradition, which really embraced the “just me and my Bible” view….

  13. MichaelA says:

    I think the following is the most fundamental issue on this thread – an incorrect understanding of “sola scriptura” and its origin. Fr Jonathan, you wrote:

    “This is perhaps the most puzzling thing I’ve ever read. If the reformers did not invent the doctrine of sola Scriptura, then who did? Surely you’re not suggesting that the Bible itself advocates such a position.”

    Father Jonathan, respectfully, it is this rhetorical question which shows that your assertion in the next paragraph (that you know what “Sola Scriptura” means, and where it came from) is incorrect.

    The reformers did not invent the term “sola scriptura”, and much of your article above appears to be built on an incorrect premise.

    The first time that I am aware of that it was expounded was by Robert Grosseteste in the early thirteenth century (although of course he saw himself as doing no more than giving expression to a doctrine always held by the church). Although little known by the general public today, Grosseteste was arguably the foremost theologian of his day, certainly among the most eminent. Grosseteste wrote in his inaugural lecture on becoming master of theology at Oxford:
    “The Scripture alone (sola scriptura) so inscribing the mind, elevates the person beyond himself and all the way to God, calling that person to unite with God, he creates one spirit, and causes that person to live in divine manner”.

    The same term and understanding were used by Thomas Aquinas later in the thirteenth century. He wrote in his commentary on the Gospel of John:
    “It should be noted that though many might write concerning Catholic truth, there is this difference that those who wrote the canonical Scripture, the Evangelists and Apostles, and others of this kind, so constantly assert it that they leave no room for doubt. That is his meaning when he says “˜we know his testimony is true.´ Galatians 1:9, “If anyone preach a gospel to you other than that which you have received, let him be anathema!” The reason is that only canonical Scripture (sola canonica scriptura) is a measure of faith. Others however so wrote of the truth that they should not be believed save insofar as they say true things.”

    John Wyclif in the 14th century also used the term “sola scriptura” with the same meaning as Grossteste and Aquinas – not to mean that there is no authority but scripture, but that scripture is the highest authority among many for the church.

    And these are not the only ones.

    I would like to see the slightest evidence you can put forward that Cranmer, Ridley, Bucer, Calvin or Luther used the term “sola scriptura” in any different sense to the medieval theologians before them.

    So yes, I strongly disagree with your rhetorical question above: “If the reformers did not invent the doctrine of sola Scriptura, then who did?”. They did not invent it, and they did not purport to invent it.

    I hope it is clear by now that “sola scriptura” does not mean “there is no authority for the church but scripture”, and it never did. Rather, what both the medieval theologians and the magisterial reformers meant by the term was that “scripture alone has certain unique qualities (i.e. of being direct divine revelation)”. That in turn leads directly to Article VI in the Anglican Articles of Religion.

    Now of course people today can understand this term incorrectly. Many do, and sadly it seems that includes some Anglicans. But that is no excuse for actively promoting the incorrect understanding when we should know better.

    And yes, going to your second rhetorical question, I do think that “the Bible itself advocates such a position”, but it is the position understood by Grossteste, Aquinas, Wyclif, Cranmer, Luther, Calvin et al, not the position as your Lutheran friends appear to understand it.

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      The reformers did not invent the term “sola scriptura”, and much of your article above appears to be built on an incorrect premise.

      “Sola Scriptura” and its English equivalent are just words. Of course the Reformers did not invent the words. They did propagate a unique view of how these words are to be understood. There are very few pure revolutions. Everything comes from something. Naturally, the Reformers did not just wake up one morning and shout “Eureka!” They drew on other sources. But they believed they were recovering a lost doctrine. If Robert Grosseteste, Thomas Aquinas, or any other medieval scholastic believed the Church was not uniquely qualified to authentically interpret the Scripture, they would have made the same kind of leap to protest that the reformers did.

      I am no expert on Robert Grosseteste or on medieval theologians in general. But I don’t see anything in the quotes you have supplied that suggests anything approaching the Reformation doctrine as it was most often articulated. To say that the Scripture is unique and that it alone is to be considered infallible, unlike the writings of anyone who came after, is completely commonplace. The most ultramontanist Roman Catholic zealot for the papacy could say the same thing. Certainly, none of these men had a problem asserting that the Church not only can but must interpret the Scriptures. Aquinas wrote reams on natural law. His Catena tests the Scriptures against the combined wisdom of the Fathers.

      I would like to see the slightest evidence you can put forward that Cranmer, Ridley, Bucer, Calvin or Luther used the term “sola scriptura” in any different sense to the medieval theologians before them.

      “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” – Luther at the Diet of Worms

      One could also look at something like the definition given in the Epitome of the Formula of Concord or the first chapter of the Westminster Confession, the latter of which says, “The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture” because “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself.” The Church cannot authoritatively speak to this without confusion because “The catholic or universal Church… is invisible” (Chapter XXV). Again, the issue here is largely one of ecclesiological deficiency. The Scripture judges the Church’s interpretation of the same, which means that someone has to determine what the Scripture actually, really, plainly says before turning back to the Church and saying, “You guys have it all wrong!” Eventually, that leads back to the individual becoming his own pope. It may not have been what the reformers were going for, but it is an inevitable development.

      I hope it is clear by now that “sola scriptura” does not mean “there is no authority for the church but scripture”, and it never did.

      I never said that it did. Moreover, as I’ve said repeatedly elsewhere, including in the preceding post, there is a way of articulating sola Scriptura that brings it in line with Catholic practice. But I think that this is largely an unhelpful distinction, as in the process of making sola Scriptura fit you end up carefully defining the “sola” part away. Prima Scriptura seems to me a much more accurate description that avoids a lot of unnecessary confusion.

  14. MichaelA says:

    “If that had not been your intention, I apologize,…”

    No apology necessary, but you are correct, that was not my intention. Rather I was pointing out on this thread and the preceding one that the Church Fathers, in expounding a difficult passage of scripture, first look at it in context with the rest of scripture. This is what Saint Augustine and Saint Cyril of Alexandria did with the passage you cited (Luke 7:18).

    By all means turn to secondary authorities if such a method leaves ambiguity, but in the case of this passage, Augustine and Cyril didn’t see any ambiguity at all. For them, when looked at in light of other scripture, the meaning of Luke 7:18 was “altogether plain” (Augustine at section 4).

    [For other readers, here are links to their relevant sermons on-line: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf106.vii.xviii.html (Augustine), and http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/cyril_on_luke_03_sermons_26_38.htm#SERMON XXXVII (Cyril).]

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      By all means turn to secondary authorities if such a method leaves ambiguity…

      Which is the heart of the matter. Which “secondary authority” do we or can we trust? How do we know? What finally settles the matter? For Catholic, historic, conciliar Christianity, the answer is the Church. That’s why it is so important to have a correct ecclesiology, not because ecclesiology is itself the most important thing but because without it we easily spin off into worlds of our own fancy and lose the Gospel in the process.

      • Aaron says:

        In some ways, to be truely Protestant is to be truely Catholic. Which is why confessionalism just doesn’t work, its a distortion of how the Church is suppossed to work. Nobody should be bound by an unchanging confession through the centuries, save that which was held everywhere, in all places at all times – catholicity.

      • MichaelA says:

        “For Catholic, historic, conciliar Christianity, the answer is the Church.”

        1. Yes, but what does “the Church” mean, in this context? Your failure to define it leaves the concern that it will simply mean what each person chooses it to mean.

        2. And in any case, my point above remains – I consider that the method you have outlined on this thread and the previous one involves you going to secondary authorities before you have properly examined the first.

      • MichaelA says:

        Aaron: “Nobody should be bound by an unchanging confession through the centuries, save that which was held everywhere, in all places at all times – catholicity.”

        Since nothing fits that description, that hardly helps. In the history of the Christian church (including the patristic period) there has always been someone who has disagreed about something.

  15. slink says:

    Fr. Jonathan,

    It seems to me that your arguments cut just as much against Anglicanism as they do against Protestantism. About halfway through your post you write this as part of an argument against Protestantism: “If the Church is needed for the right reading of Scripture but the Church often errs at the same, it follows that there needs to be some other measure for discovering what a true reading of Scripture really entails. Having the tradition of the Church’s historical interpretation of Scripture on your side is nice, but it does not guarantee anything because the Church could have been wrong all along.” You decry this mindset in Protestants but is this thinking not also the underpinning of the 39 Articles themselves? Doesn’t Article XIX say as much when it states, “As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch, have erred, so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of Ceremonies, but also in matters of Faith.” When Article XXII argues against “the Romish doctrine of Purgatory” is it not saying, in essence, that the Church [in this case the Roman Catholic church] had gotten it wrong? When Article XXVII argues against transubstantiation is it not, once again, arguing against tradition and doing so by appealing to “Holy Writ”?

    Also, while it is plain what you are arguing against I can’t quite seem to figure out what it is that you are for. You aren’t endorsing Protestantism and the paragraph dealing with the problems of Rome and Orthodoxy makes it apparent that you don’t agree with placing Tradition as the final arbiter either. What else is left? Anglicanism? In your most recent reply to MichaelA you say, “That’s why it is so important to have a correct ecclesiology, not because ecclesiology is itself the most important thing but because without it we easily spin off into worlds of our own fancy and lose the Gospel in the process.” How has proper ecclesiology kept the Anglican church from spinning off into its own world? Anglicans in this nation are OK with women’s ordination, Anglicans in that nation are against it. Anglicans in one nation barely regard the Eucharist as anything more than a memorial meal while others hold it in the highest regard and would likely affirm transubstantiation if you asked them to. There are of course the more colorful excesses of TEC in the recent decades. Which church, if any, gets it right?

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Slink,

      I appreciate your comment very much because it highlights some important elements about this whole conversation.

      It seems to me that your arguments cut just as much against Anglicanism as they do against Protestantism.

      Quite right, which is why I said in the preceding post that Anglicanism is not immune from this problem. I don’t think that it is a problem that exists in the essence of Anglicanism necessarily, in the way that it does in the essence of most other Protestant theologies, but it is a problem that certainly exists in the practice of Anglicanism, at least in some places, and probably has since the Reformation. There is a kind of minimalism to Anglicanism that makes it very easy to fall into this trap.

      You decry this mindset in Protestants but is this thinking not also the underpinning of the 39 Articles themselves?

      I don’t think so, at least not as the Articles were promulgated under Elizabeth. First, it is important to remember that the Articles are not the be all and end all of Anglican thought but a very particular critique of the prevailing religious ideas in a number of other camps at the time.They are misunderstood when they are taken in isolation. But regarding the particular examples you cite, there is nothing wrong with saying that individual churches have gotten things wrong from time to time. And this is particularly true when we talk about ways in which the individual churches have drifted both from Scripture and from the universal practice of the Church Catholic. That is different from saying that the Church, the Body of Christ, in her fullness, has been historically and corporately wrong in her reception of Holy Scripture.

      Also, while it is plain what you are arguing against I can’t quite seem to figure out what it is that you are for.

      A fair criticism. And what it makes me realize is that I need to do some more work on the topic of the Church, which is more than will fit in any one blog post. Perhaps a series is in order some time in the new year.

      How has proper ecclesiology kept the Anglican church from spinning off into its own world?… Which church, if any, gets it right?

      To the first question, the answer is that it hasn’t, but the assumption is that we have a proper ecclesiology, which is not an assumption I make. On the contrary, our current ecclesiology is a royal mess of epic proportions and the fact that we have the kind of variation you speak of owes itself at least in part to our lack of understanding what the Church is. Some of this is simple the fault of Anglican churches not understanding the ecclesiology that they have inherited. But some of it is in our DNA and is the result of the curious position that the Reformation placed us in. Anglicanism, after all, was never meant to be. The Church of England, which existed long before the Reformation, was able to reform herself, post schism, to attain more closely to the faith and practice of the early Church. Her position as an independent church, without communion with the wider Church, was and remains an anomaly. Even so, the ground of early Anglican ecclesiology was to simply hold onto the fact that the Church of England was not an invention of the Reformation but a truly apostolic and historic church. And when she first began to spread around the globe, the task of her missionaries was merely to minister to the English people abroad. But as we know, this did not remain the case. Anglican churches were planted around the globe and became indigenous, often in places where there were churches already. How are they to understand themselves? What claim can they make to be the Church in those places? These are the kinds of messy questions that the Anglican Communion avoided for a hundred and fifty years, until they finally blew up in all of our faces.

      As you can see, there’s a lot of layers of complication to this, which is why it could not possibly fit into one comment on one blog post. But while I think it is possible to look at individual churches and say that structurally, organically, even spiritually, they are a part of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, I would be hesitant to say that any individual church today “gets it right,” not because the mind of the Church is unavailable to us, but because we are all operating under the curse of a millennium’s worth of schism, which means that while the truth remains viable wherever the true Church is to be found, so also is there great injury and cloudy vision that comes from our ongoing separation. This is one of the reasons why we hearken back to the early Church so often, not because they were perfect and have all the answers, but because the very reality of their communion places them in a stronger position than us. But it is not enough simply to pine for the past. The Church of Christ must work to be reunited. We must look over the divide to see each other, and more importantly to see Christ, to understand how His fullness has been obscured by our self-centeredness.

      Much more to say, of course, but for now I hope that helps to clarify at least a little.

  16. The person who coined the term “solo” scriptura (properly always used with the quotes) was well aware that it was ungrammatical and made use of the English word solo to illustrate his point about Christians of the “just me and my Bible” mentality. It was a pun, and a decent one in its proper context. It’s unfortunate that it’s been separated from that context and that people are now arguing against the term because it’s ungrammatical — that was exactly the point.

  17. MichaelA says:

    My apologies for the delay in reply, due to being on holiday in parts of Australia where internet access is very limited! I wrote above:

    “I would like to see the slightest evidence you can put forward that Cranmer, Ridley, Bucer, Calvin or Luther used the term “sola scriptura” in any different sense to the medieval theologians before them.

    Father Jonathan, you responded with two citations. Curiously one of these dates from more than a century AFTER the death of all the reformers I mentioned, so it is difficult to see how it has any relevance at all. But no matter, let’s look at each citation in turn:

    1. You wrote: ““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” – Luther at the Diet of Worms”

    This is a summary of Luther’s oral argument during the debate, relating to specific issues. I am at a complete loss as to how it supports your case. Luther defends specific statements in his works by asserting that on these issues the Popes and Councils (by which he means medieval councils, not the great ecumenical councils like Nicaea) contradict each other – what is your problem with that? If he was correct and they did in fact contradict each other on an issue, why was a Christian bound to obey the particular edicts that certain bishops grabbed hold of to support the sale of indulgences?

    And more to the point, how does this show that Luther (let alone Cranmer, Bucer Ridley etc) understood the expression “Sola Scriptura” in a way different to the medieval theologians?

    2. You wrote: “One could also look at something like the definition given in the Epitome of the Formula of Concord or the first chapter of the Westminster Confession …””

    The Westminster Confession of Faith was written more than a century after the magisterial reformers – quite simply, this does not respond to my question above, which asked what grounds you put forward for asserting that the magisterial reformers understood the expression “sola scriptura” different to their medieval predecessors. Whether we like it or not, neither the WCF nor the Formula of Concord can tell us anything about what Cranmer, Ridley, Latimer, Bucer, Vermigli, Calvin etc meant by sola scriptura. On the contrary, I assert that if you read the works of the magisterial reformers it is clear that they did use the expression sola scriptura as their predecessors did, which is different to the way that many today (including, apparently, yourself) interpret it .

    3. I am tempted to leave your comments about the WCF there because of the clear lack of relevance, but I cannot help but comment on the following:

    “The Church cannot authoritatively speak to this without confusion because “The catholic or universal Church… is invisible” (Chapter XXV).”

    No, no, no. I am not a Presbyterian and I do not agree with everything they teach, but we cannot impute to them doctrines that they do not hold. In the WCF, the nature of the Church’s authority has nothing to do with it being invisible. Note the following extracts from Chapter XXV:

    “II. The visible Church, which is also catholic or universal under the Gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.

    III. Unto this catholic and visible Church, Christ hath given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world; and doth by his own presence and Spirit, according to his promise, make them effectual thereunto.

    IV. This catholic Church hath been sometimes more, sometimes less, visible. And particular Churches, which are members thereof, are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them.”

    In other words, the Church is imperfect (more or less so in different places and times) but the fact remains that the Lord has given to the Church the role of teaching and interpreting Scripture. That is the teaching of the WCF, of Calvin before him, and of Cyprian before that (note my quote above).

    I was reluctant to add this, because there seem to be enough red herrings on this thread already, but I felt I had to correct a clear misunderstanding of what the WCF says, and the basis for it.

    To tie it all up, we come back to my original point – I am yet to see any support for an assertion that the magisterial reformers understood the expression “sola scriptura” different to their medieval predecessors, i.e. as an ablative of means (not a nominative) and meaning that only scripture of all documents possesses the unique quality of being direct divine revelation. By all means criticise those today who understand the expression wrongly, but we can’t criticise the reformers for a view that they did not hold.

  18. MichaelA says:

    Father Jonathan wrote:
    “Of course the Reformers did not invent the words. They did propagate a unique view of how these words are to be understood. … they believed they were recovering a lost doctrine.”

    In my view, the reformers to whom I referred (including Cranmer, Calvin and Luther) did not do anything of the kind.

    “If Robert Grosseteste, Thomas Aquinas, or any other medieval scholastic believed the Church played no role in authentically interpreting the Scripture, they would have made the same kind of leap to protest that the reformers did.”

    If you think that reformers like Cranmer, Bucer, Luther or Calvin believed that “the Church played no role in authentically interpreting the Scripture” then you do not understand their teaching. You need to study what they actually taught, not what some people today think they taught.

    And your assertion that Grosseteste or Aquinas would not have been reformers if they had been alive in the 16th century is at best speculation. Grosseteste stated plainly that obedience was only due to the Pope insofar as his commands are in harmony with the Scriptures (see e.g. Grossteste’s letters 35, 119, 127 and 128 – the last letter was sent to the Pope). He could get away with that in the 13th century because most people agreed with him. In the 16th century he would have been burned.

    “Certainly, none of these men had a problem asserting that the Church not only can but must interpret the Scriptures.”

    Nor did the magisterial reformers. This is exactly what they taught . But in common with the great medieval divines and the church fathers, they taught that the church is subject to the teachings of scripture, even as it interprets them.

    “Which is the heart of the matter….”

    Precisely, and this is what I contend that you are NOT doing.

    I wrote that we should follow the method used by the Church Fathers when exegeting a passage of scripture. As we have seen, the Church Fathers turn first to a comparison of the passage with the rest of scripture, and only after that process (if there is some ambiguity) do they turn to a secondary authority. But you seem to use their method of reading scripture in the context of other scripture last (if you do it at all).

    You wrote:
    “Which “secondary authority” do we or can we trust? How do we know? What finally settles the matter? For Catholic, historic, conciliar Christianity, the answer is the Church.”

    Just as it was and is the answer for reformed Anglicans.

    “That’s why it is so important to have a correct ecclesiology, not because ecclesiology is itself the most important thing but because without it we easily spin off into worlds of our own fancy and lose the Gospel in the process.”

    I agree. It appears that each of you and I think that the other is “spinning off into a world of his own fancy”, and not following the teachings of the Church!

  19. Josh says:

    I don’t know. I don’t want to seem moderate but as someone born and raised in a confessional Lutheran Church, I find very little of what you teach on this blog to be problematic. I have been attending a classical Anglican Church for the last year and see very little difference between this and Lutheranism. We can argue about sola scriptura but it seems like Anglicans and Lutherans generally agree on what the Bible is conveying. They may take a slightly different approach to come to those conclusions but they seem to teach the same thing regardless. A Lutheran Pastor might disagree with me, but as a layman I could easily attend either Church. I might go back to the Lutheran Church because I plan on placing my daughter in their school.

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