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One of the common Catholic objections to the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura is that without the Church to offer authoritative interpretations we are all just left with our own personal readings of Scripture. So, the argument goes, evangelicals may talk a big game about the Bible being our ultimate authority, but actually the final authority rests with each individual interpretation of Scripture. In light of this chaotic free-for-all, consider how much better is the Catholic understanding of authoritative Tradition with a capital T.

There are a number of ways an evangelical could respond to this argument.

1. Illumination. We believe the Spirit opens the eyes of his people so that spiritual things can be spiritually discerned (1 Cor. 2:6-16). This illumination is not limited to church councils.

2. Perspictuity. We believe that the main things of the Bible–sin, salvation, Christ, man, God, faith–can be clearly understood. Our God speaks and knows how to speak. Jesus and the apostles quoted Scripture all the time as if they believed there was a meaning in the text that they could understand and others ought to have understood as well.

3. History. At our best, evangelicals do not confuse sola scriptura with solo scriptura, the latter entailing a complete rejection of theological tradition. Creeds and confessions matter. The historic Christian faith matters. All councils, catechisms, and theologians are fallible, but this doesn’t mean we ignore the communion of the saints that have gone before. Biblical interpretation must be informed by and rooted in tradition, just not controlled by it.

Those three points could be elaborated for a thousand pages, but I want to focus on one other response to the Catholic argument against sola scriptura.

Interpretations Need Not Apply?

I respect Catholic theology for its intellectual history, its commitment to doctrinal precision, and for the many places it promotes historic orthodoxy. But I do not see how an appeal to authoritative church tradition, in its practical outworking, makes the interpretation of Scripture any more settled. In my experience, what it does is push the boundaries of the debate away from Scripture out to papal encyclicals and the like. This is fine to do as a means for establishing what Catholics have believed about Christian doctrine (much like I don’t think it’s a waste of time for Presbyterians to discuss the Westminster Confession of Faith). But here’s my point: just because you have an authoritative tradition doesn’t mean you won’t argue over the interpretation of that tradition.

For example, take the immigration debate. How should Christians view the ethics of immigration? Two evangelicals might both turn to the Bible and come up with a difference response. I’m not saying one answer wouldn’t be more right than the other (we’re not relativists or hard postmodernists when it comes to texts), but they could very well disagree even though they both adhere to sola scriptura. So do Catholics have an easier time giving a definitive answer? Clearly not.

In May 2008, First Things printed an exchange between two Catholics on the issue of immigration. This was how the “conservative” author began (three paragraphs in):

Is there a Christian answer to these urgent question? For Catholics at least, there are relevant teachings in the Catechism: (1) The “more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able,” to welcome foreigners in search of security or a livelihood; (2) there should be not “unjust discrimination” in employment against immigrants, and (3) the immigrants themselves should “obey” the receiving country’s laws. (40)

The author on the “left” also began with an appeal to Catholic Social Teaching:

Deriving its understanding from revelation and reason, the Catholic Church teaches (1) that persons have  right to emigrate in search of a better life when poverty, hunger, unemployment, unrest, and similar factors greatly hinder human flourishing; (2) that states have a right to limit immigration when the common good of society requires it in due consideration of such factors as national security and the domestic economy, but not out of inconvenience, selfishness, or minor cost; and (3) that “more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin,” as the Catechism puts it. (44)

Both authors are obviously working with the same material, and both quote the part about prosperous nations being obliged to welcome immigrants. But you can already see they are going in different directions. The first author’s third point highlights the need for immigrants to obey the laws of the land, while the second author’s second point goes out of the way to say that nations cannot refuse immigrants out of selfishness. Same tradition, but still a debate.

Interestingly, both authors go on to interact with various Cardinals and Bishops, but neither quotes from Scripture. This doesn’t mean their arguments can’t be scriptural, it is simply to make the point that the debate centers on interpretations of interpretations.

A Tangled Mess Too

This leads to one last thought. Just because Protestants have a bazillion denominations and Catholics have, well, the Catholic Church, doesn’t mean that the Catholic Church is any less a mishmash of traditions. They have under a more formal unity just as many competing ideologies and theologies.

For example, here’s Russell Hittinger, Professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Tulsa, writing about the thought of Thomas Aquinas:

The past century and a half of papal teaching on modern times often seems like a tangle: any number of different strands–theology, Thomistic philosophy, social theory, economics–all snarled together. And yet a little historical analysis may help loosen the know. In fact, a careful reading of papal documents reveals one of the main causes of the tangle. Throughout Catholic thought over the past hundred and fifty years, they have run two quite different uses of Thomism–a combination of four threads weaving in and out of the Catholic Church’s response to the strangeness of modern times. (First Things June/July 2008, 33)

Later, as a case in point, Hittenger explains (in a sentence that will make sense to few Protestants):

The affirmations to be negated in Pius IX’s 1864 Syllabus became affirmation to be affirmed in Leo XIII’s famous 1892 encyclical Rerum Novarum–positive statements on Catholic teaching on modern social and political issues. (35)

In the end, the best arguments of sola scriptura come from the way Scripture views Scripture. I recognize I haven’t done much of that here. But clearing away counter-arguments is important too. And one of the most common is the charge that Protestantism got rid of one infallible Pope, just to put a million little popes in his place. Makes a good evangelical wince a little, doesn’t it? But before you take a step or two in the direction of Rome, remember that even one Pope has a million interpreters.


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Comments:


42 thoughts on “Tradition Still Requires Interpretation”

  1. Mandi says:

    Thank you for this post. I was raised in the Catholic church but began attending a Protestant church 10 years ago and haven’t looked back. My family is still very staunchly Catholic, however, and I have found that many Protestant churches don’t do a great job teaching their people about doctrines such as sola scriptura. I have had difficulty talking with my family about this doctrine, so this article will be very helpful to me.

  2. Justin says:

    Good thoughts! In my experience, churches don’t tend to distinguish between “sola-” and “solo Scriptura.”

    I don’t know if you’ve read “The Blue Parakeet” by Scot McKnight, but he uses an illustration of the church going down a water slide in which the Holy Spirit is the water and tradition serves as the walls on either side.

  3. Mark says:

    Great article, Kevin. Love to see more on this. We are called to defend the faith, but we should also be able to defend why we are Protestant. Many evangelicals get tripped up on church history. sort of like throwing out the baby with the bath water.

  4. Saved Catholic says:

    I noticed that the issues selected for illustration here all have to do with what Catholics would call “prudential” matters. No Catholic worth his salt will try to make the case that there are no issues yet to be hashed out through discussion, study, disagreement and argument. The point is that there are teachings that are not up for debate (though they are always up for a deeper understanding and implementation), and there is a final, authoritative teaching authority—the Magisterium of the Church—appointed by God to infallibly guide the flock in matters of faith and morals. This involves both the interpretation of Sacred Scripture and the interpretation of Sacred Tradition.

    This means that if you want to be a faithful Catholic, rather than a dissenting Catholic (that is, a heretic), you may not contradict the Church’s teaching on original sin, the Blessed Trinity, the Incarnation, the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, Baptism, the Holy Eucharist, just to name a few teachings that are not subject to argument.
    Where does the doctrinal buck stop in Protestantism? In fact, it stops with the individual. Every doctrinal teaching in Protestantism is necessarily provisional and subject to change upon some new interpretational discovery (a la Martin Luther). This is why you have Lutheran, Reformed, and Baptist teachings on baptism, among others, including some Protestants who do not believe baptism is necessary at all.

    The Protestant doctrine of perspicuity has not rescued Protestantism from this problem, nor can it do so. Moreover, it assumes that somehow Scripture’s perspicuity failed to reach Christians prior to the 16th century since, with a few heretical exceptions, the Church did not teach the Protestant rendition of doctrines such as justification, ecclesiology, ordination, Eucharist, etc.

    Making a distinction between solo vs. sola scriptura serves no better to remedy this problem. It only adds the further problem of which Protestant tradition a person should adopt to aid and inform his interpretive efforts. Furthermore, if every expression of the faith (council, creed, tradition) is fallible, in what sense should it be used to inform the interpretation of inerrant Scripture? What prevents the individual from injecting a wee bit of fallibility into every interpretation—even of the “main things”?

    This is Protestantism’s unsolvable dilemma, and it is part of the reason I left Protestantism to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church.

  5. Truth Unites... and Divides says:

    Does this post mark Rev. Kevin DeYoung as an “anti-Catholic”?

    I hope not.

  6. Pastor Matt says:

    Carl F.H. Henry’s awesome 6-volume work, “God, Revelation and Authority” has a lot to say to these important issues. It isn’t easy reading, esp. Vol. 1, which deals with preliminary issues such as method, but it is worth the tough slog. I have been blogging through it at http://pastormattsblog.wordpress.com/

    Thanks for posting and God bless.

  7. Glenn Davis says:

    As I told a friend last week, Protestantism may have 20,000 denominations externally, but the Roman Catholic church has 20,000 disagreements/sects/views/convictions internally. The Oxford historian, Owen Chadwick wrote,”The difficulty of finding out what was tradition is worse than the difficulty of finding out what Scripture teaches, the writings of the Fathers being vaster, less coherent, less concordant body of material.”

    The Church has in black and white the ecumenical creeds, but the early Church Fathers failed to bring into consensus other items of doctrine. The vast amount of Patristic material is much more difficult to decipher than the basic unity of Scripture. The real authority of the Church is removed from faithful bishops/church leaders and placed into the hands of patristic church historians. Church historians are the only individuals with the time, energy, and skill to determine ancient catholic consensus due to the complicated nature of immense amounts of Patristic material written in both Greek and Latin. In fact, ancient Tradition does not solve the problem of agreement in every matter of church doctrine and practice.

  8. Aaron Britton says:

    Saved Catholic,

    You took a very broad swipe with “no Catholic worth his salt, . . etc”. I think that’s exactly what Rev. DeYoung was talking about. If your interpretation of Catholic dogma (yes, yours) is correct and true to form. . .which I think it is. . . . . than there are many, many Catholics not worth his/her salt; the Jesuits and their liberal theological teachings being an example. Yes, that’s also an example of a “sect” within Catholicism.

    DeYoung’s examples were prudential, less, essential matters, . . But, the Church doesn’t really treat those things as you have. What about Birth Control? Obscenity in the media? Voting? Political issues? The Church takes stands there that they hope/expect all RC’s to follow. However, there is disagreement within the Roman church on such issues. No examples are perfect, but there are enough for RC’s to stop claiming a false unanimity.

    I respect your finding of certainty and uniformity in your return to the Roman church. I would hope that you could understand how others would see those issues differently. . . .

  9. Bruce Fiedler says:

    The biggest difference between 1 Pope and 1 Million pastors is this: Catholics teach and believe that their 1 Pope is “infallible” (which is clearly against scripture, even the Apostle’s own failings are mentioned in Scripture), whereas 1 million protestant pastors who admit their own fallibility and point their listeners to Scripture as the ultimate authority.
    No person born on this planet (excepting Christ himself) is without sin and therefore is fallible, I’m pretty sure this includes the Pope, and nowhere in scripture does it say that God will grant infallibility to anyone.

    p.s. Telling the truth about something or someone, does not make one “anti-something” or “anti-someone”

  10. Dan says:

    So in regard to Mandi’s comment, how do non-confessional evangelical churches, who still uphold an authentic Gospel, promote and teach on the Solas and other key doctrines of Reformation Christianity?

  11. Justin says:

    Bruce,

    I think even Catholics believe that the pope is only infallible under very specific circumstances, not in everything, and that this has only happened a few times in history. (I could be wrong here.)

    I disagree with Catholics on this point, but I bring this up because your portrayal of them isn’t accurate, either.

  12. Saved Catholic says:

    Aaron,

    The fact that many Catholics disagree with this or that teaching of the Church does not negate the fact that there is only ONE teaching. If a Catholic dissents from a settled teaching of the Church (see the Catechism of the Catholic Church for pretty good summary of said teachings), that does not make his alternate opinion potentially legitimate, it makes him a heretic. If a group of Catholics dissent, and break from them Church, it does not make them another church, it makes them schismatics. God is one. The Truth is one. The Church is one. If that is not the case, then orthodoxy and heresy have no meaning.

    Bruce,

    You are confusing impeccability with infallibility. One need not be impeccable to be infallible. This is clear from the biblical record. St. Peter was clearly not impeccable, yet God enabled him to preach infallibly before Jerusalem after the Holy Spirit had come upon him in the upper room.

    I know of no Catholics who believe that popes are impeccable. If such were the case, popes would not have confessors. Yet under certain circumstances, a Pope may proclaim a teaching on faith and/or morals and, through the work of the Holy Spirit, do so infallibly. The same holds true for the Magisterium of the Church as a whole.

    Neither of these objections answer the dilemma for Protestantism spelled out in my previous comment. If no Protestants have the capacity for infallibly teaching about matters of faith and morals, how do you know that any interpretation and/or expression of theological and moral truth is in fact the true truth?

  13. Aaron Britton says:

    SC,

    Disagree with the premise. . . .the amount of interpretation, separation, and deliniation of the Catechism makes your “ONE teaching” statement not what you make it out to be.

    Orhodoxy and Heresy DO have meaning. We name those guys too, in evangelicalism. If you’re going to judge us by an un-orthodox prosperity teacher or the like. . . don’t object when we judge you by a dissident Jesuit or radical Priest (that has yet to have been de-frocked). That goes both ways.

    Rev. DeYoung said (and I concur) that he respects the desire for precision amongst RC’s. That doesn’t mean that it’s actually happening at such a high level.

    I agree with your deliniation on infallibility. . . . The bottom line is that we don’t have an infallible teacher beyond the scriptures. That’s where we differ. If you feel that the Pope’s various Ex Cathedra, infallible, statements give you a certainty and “closed deal” on all of the big matters of faith and practice. . . .than I disagree with you. I respect your view. . but I disagree that so many matters have been closed infallibly. I think history would disagree with you as well.

    Peace in Christ,
    Aaron

  14. Thanks Kev. Your thesis has the support of the late Avery Cardinal Dulles, who put it this way: “The meaning of magisterial decisions, in turn, has to be studied with reference to the way they are understood and interpreted by pastors, theologians, and the faithful. The study of the Magisterium, therefore, would be incomplete (emphasis added) without some attention to the process of reception.” In other words, when it’s all said and done, the Catholic approach to interpreting truth—relying on “the insights of pastors, theologians, and the faithful”—is strikingly similar to that of Protestants. (Avery Cardinal Dulles S.J. “Magisterium: Teacher and Guardian of the Faith.” [Naples: Sapientia Press, 2007], 10).

  15. dwc says:

    Interpretations themselves must be interpreted. That’s unavoidable. So there will still be individual interpretation. Instead of people disagreeing about what scripture means they will disagree as to what, for example, the meaning of what a church council wrote. And instead of dealing with any apparent but not actual contradictions in scripture you also have to deal with apparent and actual contradictions in the sources that comprise Tradition. If one says there are no contradictions within either and no disagreement between the two you still are left with a lot more to consider as far as authoritative material. And the added material is far less accessible to the individual. You ultimately find yourself in a sort of cult-like situation where you want someone thinking for you. And yet the superficially unified co-religionists continue to disagree because no one is reaching into them and bringing their minds into perfect interpretive allignment. In the end you are called to submit rightly and responsibly.

  16. SCG says:

    Large words and opinions set aside, we are all one body. We believe together. I call myself a Christian, attending both Catholic mass and Protestant service on a regular basis. No matter what we do here on this Earth, we do it for Christ. I’m sure He isn’t concerned with our arguments amongst each other.

    They’ll know we are Christians by our love, not our differing opinions.

  17. Paul says:

    Unfortunately, the best part of this article is one that Kevin spends little time discussing. The bit near the beginning about perspicuity is excellent except for the fact that Kevin can’t actually spell perspicuity correctly. Whether a Roman Catholic would disagree with it is unclear to me.

    OTOH Kevin’s statement that “All councils, catechisms, and theologians are fallible” is astonishing. I think Kevin needs to think that one through a bit more. I doubt he believes that. Were the councils of Chalcedon and Nicaea fallible? What’s fallible about the Nicene creed? And if Kevin’s response is that they aren’t fallible when they say the same thing as the Bible, who decided which books were and weren’t in the Bible? Isn’t it the case that Christians think there are 27 books in the New Testament because the councils, catechisms and theologians say there are? How else do we know 2 Peter is in the New Testament and Shepherd of Hermas is out? And let’s not forget that while the Gospels were accepted by the church in the second century, arguments continued about 2 Peter well into the 4th Century. Eusebius thought it should not be in the New Testament. It’s there because a theologian called Athanasius said it should be.

    Also, Kevin seems to think that lots of things in the Roman Catholic church are open to interpretation. As I understand it from my Catholic friends, the way it works is that some things are open to interpretation (eg. immigration) and others are not (eg. the trinity). Magisterium has different levels and one can disagree on it over some things and remain a good Catholic but not disagree with it over other things. So with the exception of the quote from Hittenger at the end, most of the rest of the article is a red herring.

  18. Saved Catholic says:

    “Disagree with the premise. . . .the amount of interpretation, separation, and deliniation of the Catechism makes your “ONE teaching” statement not what you make it out to be.”

    I’m really not sure what this means. As I noted earlier, there are clearly issues that have not been definitively decided within Catholicism. But there are many, many that have. The Catholic Church does indeed have one teaching on the Incarnation, Sacrament, Ecclesiology, abortion, human sexuality, etc. A reading of the Catechism will demonstrate that your stated opinion is not accurate, since it draws on the entire 2000 year old Tradition of the Church (this encompasses Sacred Scripture, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, the Councils and Creeds).

    Evangelicalism does indeed have it’s orthodoxy and heresy, but the question is who gets to decide whom is a heretic? Since everyone is fallible, these differences boil down to different ideas about how the Scriptures are to be interpreted, without a final court of appeal. The Roman Catholic Church does have a final court of appeal.

    Also, I am not judging anyone. I am only setting out analysis and argumentation about this issue.

    Paul, above, essentially reiterates my point using he example of he canon of Scripture, in particular the NT. The history of the OT canon only sharpens the point further.

    Much criticism has been expressed towards the Catholic Church’s teaching in these exchanges, which is fine. I expect that. But I note again that a resolution to Protestantism’s dilemma, as I stated it above, has yet to be posed.

    On the other hand, if a resolution can be posed, it cannot be posed infallibly.

  19. James S says:

    Kevin, I’ve always enjoyed reading your material and listening to your sermons – ( I download them frequently and listen on my sanza). You now have got me hooked on your blog here. This is three great posts in a row, the CS Lewis one, the Authority one, and now this. I hadn’t really been reading your blog before this, with so many good blogs online and so little time to peruse.

    I’m going to have to dig through your archives, I’m sorry I’ve missed so much, but happy that I have some great reading coming in the future. I just need to clone myself about 10 times so I can keep up with all the good reformed christian blogs online worldwide, (and many here at the Gospel Coalition).

    The ‘Pyromaniacs’ blog archives has held me captive for the past month, and now I will have even less time. I won’t cut out my own bible study time or my daily Dick Lucas audio sermon time, but maybe I could look into learning to read while sleeping?

  20. But what infallible interpreter do we have to decide whether the Roman Catholic tradition is in fact infallible. Is the infallible tradition Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox or something else. As a point of fact of fact any tradition has changes and contradictions. Ultimately we have to interpret whether Scripture or tradition is the authority and in the case of tradition what version is the authority. This is no simple basis, without circular reasoning that allows us to answer all the questions without thinking it through.

  21. Aaron says:

    SC,

    The reason you probably feel as though your question has not been answered is because we have a different starting point. Indeed. . who can judge a fallible document infallibly? . .I would argue, not the Pope.

    So, the answer is. . . we don’t judge anything nor anyone to be infallible, save for the Word of God (which formed the church, not vice versa).

    You have not answered the differences , anti-popes, historical divisions, etc. . within the RC church. . .nor their contemporary sects, such as the Jesuits whom have different nuances in their teachings.

    You seem to call all such things “heretical”, which the RC church has not done, but I think is an easy way to claim uniformity where it does not exist.

    Probably not much more work can be done in a comment field. . but I thank you for your respectful tone, and I hope you feel I’ve been respectful as well.

  22. Matt says:

    Kevin: I have high regard for the Lord’s work in your life–both your mind and your heart for the Lord and for pastoral ministry. However, with all due respect, I want to invite you to read more widely in church history. Perhaps at some point you could do some serious engagement with the early church from a non-Reformed perspective. I believe that if you did this you would never make a comment such as “We believe that the main things of the Bible–sin, salvation, Christ, man, God, faith–can be clearly understood.” Most of these doctrines are not clearly understood by us because we sat down with a Bible and figured it out; they are clearly understood by us because the early church fathers spent at least 300 years sifting, fighting, defending, refining, clarifying, and communicating these doctrines. The reformers such as Luther may have reemphasized (note they did not discover the doctrine) certain doctrines like justification by faith; but for the most part, it wasn’t Luther, Calvin or Edwards who made the faith clear for us. It was people like Athanasius, Irenaeus, Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa (i.e. our Catholic and Orthodox brethren) who handed us the story of salvation, the nature of the Trinity, the dual natures of Christ, the canon of Scripture. I love the reformers, but I would also love to see my contemporary American reformed brothers and sisters have a broader appreciation for and humility towards God’s work in the early church. In fairness to you, you did state that you are not advocating solo Scriptura. I believe you, but on the other hand, I’d love to see the day when you are just as intent in quoting Athanasius and Basil as you are at quoting Edwards and Calvin.

  23. John Thomson says:

    Very helpful blog. Many thanks.

    The apostles seemed to believe their teaching was Spirit given and authoritative. They also believed that Spirit-led folks would recognise their authority and embrace their teaching.

    Church tradition that is authentically apostolic will reflect this teaching. It will not add to it but simply pass it on (the same commit to faithful men…) The apostles believed in the power of the Holy Spirit to enable believers to discern what was authentically apostolic and what was not.

    Church tradition of whatever form that contradicts (or adds to) apostolic teaching we are right to reject.

  24. Saved Catholic says:

    Aaron,

    Indeed, I have found every exchange here quite respectful, and I appreciate it.

    The reason I do not think my question has been answered has nothing to do with starting points. It has to do with the fact that my question has not been answered.

    You say, “Indeed. . who can judge a fallible document infallibly?” The answer to that is: anyone whom God has enabled to do so. The Catholic Church teaches that that anyone is, under certain circumstances, the Pope, and also the Magisterium of the Church, which consists of the bishops of the Church in union with the Pope, who is the bishop of Rome and chief shepherd of the Church and holds the Keys to the Kingdom.

    Now, it is clearly the case in Catholic teaching that if a Catholic willfully dissents—that is, holds to a position that contradicts an established doctrine or moral teaching of the Catholic Church—then that Catholic has put himself in the position of being a heretic. The root meaning of “heresy” is “choice”. So a heretic chooses his own mind and will over the mind and will of the Church, which is the pillar and bulwark of the truth. In fact, in Catholic teaching, this situation extends even to actions, so that, for instance, if a Catholic were to aid a woman in procuring an abortion, that person would be excommunicated by the fact of having willfully acted in contradiction to God’s commandment against murder.

    For the record, this holds no matter what any Jesuit says (Jesuits are an order IN the Catholic Church, not a sect. They are as obligated as any other Catholic to affirm the teachings of the Catholic Church).
    You say that only the Word of God is infallible, by which I take you to mean Sacred Scripture (The Word, Jesus Christ, did indeed found and form the Church, but the Church, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, produced the Sacred Scripture, which is part of the Deposit of Faith). But Sacred Scripture must be interpreted. That’s just a brute fact of our situation as creatures. So the question remains, who can infallibly interpret the inerrant written Word of God?

    The consensus here seems to be that no one can. If that is the case, how can anyone know they’ve “rightly divided the Word”? This position works out to mean that NO interpretation is infallible, NO expression of Christian teaching can be regarded as being without error, which means EVERY doctrine, at least theoretically, is subject to change. This also implies that perhaps it’s the case that no one has the true truth, or, if someone does, we are without the means to know that he does.

    Protestants disagree with the Catholic Church on the issue of infallible teaching, and that’s fair enough. But it is not true to say that Catholic teaching shares Protestantism’s dilemma, because it does not. Whether or not one agrees with the decisions made by the court of final appeal, the fact is that a court of final appeal exists. Such is not the case for Protestants and therefore Protestantism has doctrinally problematic fallout inherent in its theology.

  25. If the pope is infallable there still has to be an intrepretation of which of the pope’s sayings are in infallable (that is which are ex cathedra utterances) and what those utterances mean. If anything this is much more complicated thing to do then interpretating Scripture as there is a larger amount of information involved. I do not see that this simplifies the matter of interpretation at all. Whatever the authority we still have ourselves as fallable people interpreting it.

  26. Saved Catholic says:

    Mike the Mad Theologian,

    Catholics trust (or ought to) the Church to guide them. Unlike Protestantism, it is not up to the individual to decide each and every matter. The main outlines and issues in Catholic teaching are quite clear, and are stated quite clearly. Read, for instance, what is said about abortion in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

    Also, do note that the criticism you aim at Catholicism helps Protestantism not one whit. It leaves all of us floundering in epistomological uncertainty, unable to say, “Here I stand!” with any confidence that we stand upon true truth.

  27. Saved Catholic,

    The question is what is the authority. If having to interpret the authority means we are left in epistomological uncertainty then we are all left in epistomological uncertainty forever because the only way to understand we can understand anything is to interpret it. Replacing the Scriptures with the decrees of the pope and the Catechism of the Catholic Church is only trading one set authoritative revelations for another. You say the Catholic Catechism is clear on what it teaches, but I would contend the Scripture is clear on what it teaches. This issue is which is the correct authority. But the idea one can mindless follow any authority without asking what it really teaches is naive.

  28. David says:

    I noticed in the article that DeYoung mentioned that all councils, creeds, etc. are fallible, yet that is not a reason to completely disregard them. I agree… but I was pushed to wonder about the councils that made decisions regarding the canonicity of the NT?

    Do we as Protestants, Evangelicals, Christians, or any other “branch” for that matter not believe those councils to be infallible as a result of the guiding and inspiring of the Holy Spirit? Because if we don’t, then what trust can we really have in the NT (or the rest of the scriptures) that all that God intended to be included, was actually included?

    Was hoping someone could clarify..

  29. Kevin says:

    David: Assuming you’re a Reformed Christian, I think you’re supposed to believe that the scriptures are self-attesting to every individual believer who has the holy spirit. That is, by reading Psalms or James or Revelation you know that they are God’s word because the spirit testifies to you, and when you read something like 1 Maccabees or the Wisdom of Solomon, the spirit does not reveal them to be God’s word to you. For Reformed Protestants, it is my understanding that councils and church authority have no causal connection to the recognition of canonical texts. However, the fact that the Holy Spirit didn’t keep Luther on the same page as future Protestants when it came to the new testament canon seems to suggest that there’s a problem with the theory of self-attestation to the individual believer (rather than its self-attestation to the Church).

  30. David says:

    So would you say that self-attestation to the individual believer would be questionable doctrinally for the above mentioned reason? And if so what would you propose, or would you propose anything, as an alternative for a theological basis for confidence in biblical canonicity?

  31. Kevin says:

    I would say that it’s questionable doctrinally because of the doctrine’s novelty, but also because I can’t say honestly that the Holy Spirit gave me clarity that the Proverbs are his true word but the Wisdom of Solomon is not. It also seems that either Luther or Calvin did not have the Holy Spirit if the Holy Spirit is supposed to move all true believers to recognize true scripture.

    As a Protestant, I assumed that the early church had real authority when it declared heresy heretical and orthodoxy orthodox. I assumed that the early church compiled the sacred scriptures that were true and rejected those that were false. I assumed that their doctrinal definitions at the early ecumenical councils were binding on me and every other true believer. But, it turns out that those beliefs weren’t compatible with any intellectually coherent form of Protestantism (some Protestants propose a “test” of canonicity, but every one I’ve seen fails to arrive at all of the books accepted by most Protestants today without any extra books or parts of books), so God began leading me over a period of several years to seek full communion with the Catholic Church.

    Here are the relevant passages from chapter one of the Westminster confession and from the Belgic confession. If you don’t quite buy it, I hope you consider Catholicism:

    V. We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the Church to an high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scripture.[10] And the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is, to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man’s salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it does abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God: yet notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.

    Belgic:
    And we believe without a doubt all things contained in them– not so much because the church receives and approves them as such but above all because the Holy Spirit testifies in our hearts that they are from God, and also because they prove themselves to be from God.

  32. OC says:

    Hey Kevin. i have a question. Pinpointing to the part about immigration, since u quoted it though you only gave a catholic position on it, Kevin can u give a protestant or reformed position to it?

  33. meredith says:

    Amen. Jesus said, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him …it is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Therefore everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to Me.”(John 6:44-45) “Then their eyes were opened and they knew Him (Jesus)…and they said to one another. ‘Did not our heart burn within us while He talked with us on the road and while He opened the Scriptures to us?'”(Luke 24:31-32) Quoting a Gideon, “When one reads the Scriptures the Author is present.” Does not the “drawing power” of Scripture attest to the authority of God and His Word over those whom God has placed in “authority”?

  34. Rider of Rohan says:

    thanks to both kevins for this great conversation!

    @kevin (above): thanks for your very thoughtful comments!

  35. Kevin:

    A more interesting issue to tackle would be the self-understanding of the pre-Reformation Western Church. Although there were disagreements among its leading lights on a variety of questions (e.g., Aquinas v. Scotus, Augustine v. Jerome), they were never seen as counting against ecclesial unity. So, the issue is not disagreement per se, but how the Church resolves disagreement when a resolution is required (for not all disagreements require an immediate resolution) and the reality of ecclesial unity as the actualization of our communion with one another and Christ. Consider the latter in light of the principle of Perspictuity, which you define in the following way: “We believe that the main things of the Bible–sin, salvation, Christ, man, God, faith–can be clearly understood.” It turns out that on the matter of justification–the issue from which the Reformation was launched–there is complete agreement between Augustine, the Council of Orange, Aquinas, Trent, and the Catechism (a millennium and a half of unanimous agreement on what Scripture teaches), just the sort of agreement that you would expect perspictuity would deliver. And yet, this is precisely the place where the Reformation bucks its predecessors and its Catholic successors. So, for someone like me, this Protestant principle worked against Protestantism and for Catholicism.

    I published a piece late last year entitled “Is Aquinas a Proto-Protestant?” where I connect Aquinas to Augustine and the present Catechism. Just click my name to go there.

    Frank

  36. Douglas says:

    Yes, there are many things in Scripture that should be understood, but people are exceedingly good at justifying their actions. Onanism/withdrawal was clearly rejected in Scripture, and it is obvious that God has a very pro-natalist view of things from any unbiased reading of the Scripture. However, people jump through all sorts of hoops to justify contraception, one of the biggest being the claim that Scripture doesn’t speak about the topic.

    Having Tradition as a guide narrows the topics of debate in very significant ways and achieves a greater unity. Sure, there will never be complete agreement on all topics, but there is a method in place for resolving differences that doesn’t result in yet another denomination. There is a means of knowing that Jesus was truly speaking literally when he said, “This is my body.”

    While it is true that every Protestant effectively functions as his own pope, it is also true that the vast majority of Protestants actually claim far more authority to interpret Scripture than the Pope himself in many respects. The Pope is constrained to not contradict past authoritative teachings of the Church. He’s not going to go off and contradict the Catechism or the Creeds in interpreting a passage of Scripture. Protestants have no such constraints and can put together any random mishmash of Biblical interpretations without any repercussions, other than maybe needing to start a new church/denomination if their old one won’t accept the new conglomeration of teachings. No pope has ever claimed as much authority and freedom to interpret Scripture as the average Protestant claims.

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina. He is chairman of the board of The Gospel Coalition, assistant professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte), and a PhD candidate at the University of Leicester. Kevin and his wife, Trisha, have seven children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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