Revisiting Sola Scriptura

CaptureLast night I had dinner with Jaison Jacob – a Calvinist friend living and studying at Moore Theological College. The discussion turned to matters surrounding the bible – something that I was hoping to avoid because we always go in circles on this issue and never get anywhere. However to my surprise, Jaison was able to prove the inspiration of scripture with a short, concise sequence of logical steps and without any reference to the Catholic Magisterium. I was amazed and wondered why he had never been able to do this in the many previous theological discussions and debates that we had had together over the past few years.

I will here attempt to reproduce and analyse his argument (Although as should become immediately apparent from reading the first sentence, I do not claim to do so in a way which he himself would agree with). If it manages to hold up, this would be extremely significant because it would deal with some of the most burning questions that drove me to Catholicism back in 2014.

A Common Foundation

Screen-Shot-2018-01-24-at-8.27.18-AM-1[1].pngBoth the Catholic chain of reasoning and the Protestant chain of reasoning that Jaison outlined to me last night share a common logical foundation, so I will start by outlining that:

  1. Reason and Experience have primacy and supreme authority. God gave me a brain before he gave me a bible.
  2. On the basis of Reason and Experience, it is possible to conclude that Jesus is God. (In my personal case, it is direct mystical experience which confirms this fact, rather than reading the gospels, however for other people, their faith in this proposition might derive more from their study of scripture)
  3. On the basis of Reason and experience (In the form of Historical enquiry and method), it is possible to verify that the text of the New Testament has been accurately transmitted from the days when it was first written all the way up to the present.
  4. On the basis of Reason and Experience (Historical method again), we conclude that the accounts of Christ’s words and life given in the Gospels are accurate enough to trust, without necessarily being inerrant.
  5. From 2, 3 and 4, we conclude that the “red letters” of the gospel (Words spoken by Jesus) are literally words coming from the mouth of God verbatim, and are therefore inspired.

So we have primary authority vested in Reason and Experience, along with all the manifestations they may take such as science, history, philosophy, theology etc. We also have established that Jesus is God and that his recorded words are inspired, without necessarily being 100% inerrant.

The Protestant Argument

Sola-Scriptura[1].png

The protestant argument continues:

  1. Some of the inspired red-letters state that Jesus promises his apostles that they will be able to recall the gospel message, and that it will be preserved in their memories and accurately conveyed in their teaching in such a way that they too speak with inspiration. (eg, Luke 10:16 “Whoever hears you hears me” and John 14:25-26 These things I have spoken to you, while I am still with you. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.”)
  2. From 1, we conclude that any document which is written by apostles or contains apostolic teaching is inspired, and this definition is broad enough to encompass the entire New Testament.
  3. In the New Testament, Jesus refers to the law, the prophets and the psalms as if they are inspired, which covers a sizable chunk of the OT. Furthermore In 2 Timothy, Paul makes a vague reference to “the scriptures” and directly claims that whatever they are, they are inspired
  4. Conclusion: We can be fully confident that the entire New Testament is inspired, we can be fully confident that the Torah, the prophets and the psalms are inspired, and we can be fully confident that whatever Paul meant by “the scriptures” in 2 Timothy, they too are inspired.

Analysis

books-old[1].jpgThis chain of reasoning is powerful enough to conclusively prove the inspiration of the New Testament, but it depends on tradition at several key points. For one thing, we are unable to work out who actually authored many of the epistles and gospels. We draw our confidence as to the authorship of these documents from tradition. I have no problem with drawing on tradition, but this is problematic for an adherent of Sola Scriptura because the bible is supposed to have supreme authority in opposition to tradition. Having the case for the bible rest on tradition undermines the whole philosophy.

This chain of reasoning also does not fully prove Sola Scriptura (here defined as “Scripture alone has the highest authority”), because reason and experience remain as the foundational authorities upon which everything else rests. In this chain of reasoning we start with reason, not with the bible, and use reason to conclude that Jesus is God and that scripture is inspired. It is only after depending on reason that you end up with a collection of inspired scriptures, and therefore it is reasonable to assume that these scriptures should be interpreted in light of reason and experience rather than having reason and experience interpreted in light of scripture, as the Sola Scripturist would have it. Scripture may very well have authority, but this authority is not higher than reason and experience.

This chain of reasoning also remains problematic for this idea that we are supposed to base our entire lives on the scriptures, because the scriptural canon is loosely defined and potentially mutable: New apostolic writings could be discovered and old apostolic writings could be revealed to be fraudulent. If this were to happen it would be a very confusing situation: many Christians throughout the centuries would have based their lives on books that were later revealed to be forgeries, and many Christians who were reading the bible under the impression that it included everything they need to know were in reality missing some books that they were supposed to acknowledge but didn’t. (Incidentally, this was a reality for the first 700 years of Christianity. In the far east, the Syriac Peshitta omitted many New Testament Books. And around the wider Christian world, there were many books that were once considered inspired but were later discovered not to be, for example the Shepherd of Hermes)

This chain of reasoning also ends on a cliff-hanger, because it does not clearly define a canon of scripture. Something more is required to work out what Paul means when he says “the scriptures”. As it stands, the wisdom literature, historical books and deuterocanon are up in the air: are they inspired? We simply don’t know.

There is also still the problem of false teaching and the project of identifying the true church. There are important contradictions between denominations, who are all reading the same set of scriptures but teaching mutually contradictory things. The attitude, common to many protestants that “I am right because I have the holy spirit and they are wrong because they don’t” is just arrogant and foolish. The problem of interpretation is inescapable. You may argue that the bible is “clear”, but it is obviously not clear enough to cut through our sin and effectively convey the truth, in which case it may as well not be clear at all.

The Catholic Argument

RorateMass[1].png

For comparison, I will outline the Catholic argument for the inspiration of an entire, well-defined canon.

  1. Some of the inspired red-letters reveal that Jesus established an authoritative, institutional church by duplicating his divine authority into the apostles (eg, Luke 10:16 “Whoever hears you hears me, whoever rejects you rejects me” and Matthew 18:18 “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”)
  2. Other of the inspired red-letters reveal that Jesus singled out and appointed Peter as a supreme leader of this church. (Matthew 16:18-19 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”)
  3. Reason and Experience (In the form of Historical enquiry) reveal that prior to dying, the apostles appointed successors. By drawing on the divine authority vested in them by Christ, the apostles were able to similarly transmit their divine authority into these successors, making them essentially equal in authority to the apostles.
  4. Reason and Experience (In the form of Historical enquiry) reveal that this process of appointing successors and vesting them with divine authority has continued uninterrupted to the present day.
  5. From 4, it becomes possible to identify a one, true church, existing in the present day. Simply look for bishops who can trace their authority back through history to the Apostles and Christ. This church also should have a single supreme leader who can trace himself back to Peter.
  6. The only church that fits the description in 5 is the Catholic church.
  7. The Catholic church has the power to teach with inspiration/divine authority, as its’ leadership are all in the apostolic succession.
  8. The Catholic church has authoritatively, infallibly and dogmatically identified a canon of scripture, the books of which are all inspired.
  9. Conclusion: The bible according to the canon of Trent is inspired and infallible.

Analysis

Xanten_Cathedral_Germany_Credit_Daniel_Mennerich_via_Flickr_CC_BY_NC_ND_CNA[1].jpg

The Catholic argument is superior because it solves almost all of the problems I outlined in the analysis of the protestant argument.

Catholics have no problem with tradition and fully embrace it, believing that Jesus established a church with an inspired tradition, identified by apostolic succession. He did not write a book.

Catholics also have no problem with according reason and experience their rightful pride of place. Reason and experience hold supreme authority, and it is on the basis of these that we conclude that the church can sometimes teach infallibly and that the bible is inspired. Because reason is the supreme authority, the church teaching needs to be understood and interpreted in light of reason and so too the scriptures.

The idea that we are supposed to base our entire lives on scripture simply does not arise, because Catholics instead have a broad and multifaceted tradition (of which the bible is one small part) in which they are supposed to live out their lives.

The canon of scripture is also well-defined and reasoned out in the Catholic account. There is no ambiguity. Further evidence could not cast doubt on the canonicity of an existing book or introduce new books. The deuterocanon is included, along with the entire Hebrew Old Testament and New Testament. The canon is clearly established.

Finally, identifying the true church and the true teachers is easy: just look for people who are in communion with the bishops.

Conclusion

bellarmine-robert-15-marks-of-the-catholic-church[1].jpgThe Protestant chain of reasoning is powerful, but the Catholic one remains more reasonable and less problematic. Protestants are able to prove the inspiration of the New Testament and large portions of the Old Testament, however the exact canonical boundaries are very fuzzy. Whereas Catholics are able to provide an authoritative church and clearly defined canon of inspired scripture.

Despite mounting an intriguing and compelling argument, Jaison has failed to convince me and the Catholic account remains superior.

 

What is Catholic Tradition?

Mark 7:1-13 RSV-CE

Now when the Pharisees gathered together to him, with some of the scribes, who had come from Jerusalem, they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands defiled, that is, unwashed. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they wash their hands, observing the tradition of the elders; and when they come from the market place, they do not eat unless they purify themselves; and there are many other traditions which they observe, the washing of cups and pots and vessels of bronze.) And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with hands defiled?” And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,

‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’

You leave the commandment of God, and hold fast the tradition of men.”

And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God, in order to keep your tradition! 10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him surely die’; 11 but you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, What you would have gained from me is Corban’ (that is, given to God)— 12 then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, 13 thus making void the word of God through your tradition which you hand on. And many such things you do.”

angrybible-shutterstock-300x168[1].jpgThere is not much that Protestants, Fundamentalists and Evangelicals agree on, but if ever there was an ecumenical dogma which they could rally behind, it would be this condemnation of tradition by our Lord. Everything else is disputable, but this much is clear: Any tradition whatsoever is automatically suspect and heretical; all traditions must be renounced and discarded. The “word of God” must be the sole focus of our Christian reflection and piety.

So of course, when the faithful and thoughtful Catholic points out that tradition is unavoidable and it would therefore be a wise move to seek out the one, true, divine tradition that Jesus imparted to the apostles before his ascension; the venomous evangelicals spit and froth at the mouth, screaming “heresy” and obnoxiously accusing the polite and reserved Catholic of following “traditions of men”. Nowhere is Protestant ignorance and bigotry more manifest.

What these Protestants utterly fail to realise is that the traditions Jesus condemned were of an entirely different nature to the Tradition that Catholics proclaim. Unfortunately when Catholics are confronted by bloodthirsty Protestants on this point, and are put on the spot with a demand that they explain how the Catholic tradition is different; the Catholic often is unable to articulate clearly what exactly “Tradition” actually is. Catholics have an intuitive understanding of “Tradition”, however we seem to find it hard to articulate and convey in clear terms how it is that it should be understood.

The Apophatic Definition

The basic definition of what Catholics mean by “Tradition”, is that it is the continuing life of Christ in the church. Tradition is what you encounter when you immerse yourself in the Spirit. It is a direct encounter with Christ. The tradition is invisible and ineffable, it cannot be directly perceived, it must be experienced.

What Catholics tend to do when confronted about “Tradition”, is to offer this “apophatic” definition. This definition is not actually wrong, but it is incredibly vague and intangible. The Protestant listens to this definition – and not fully understanding it – they reject it and hold up their bible, waving it around for emphasis while saying “I can touch and hold this. I can read it. Why do I need your mystical, invisible, immaterial, ill-defined traditions?”

confirmation-bias[1].jpgAt this point, the Catholic might introduce a touch of psychology: Everyone has bias, bias is inescapable. Baptists have bias; Presbyterians have bias; Anglicans have bias; Lutherans have bias; Catholics have bias etc. When these people approach scripture, they bring their bias and preconceived notions with them, and this shapes how they read the bible. “Tradition” in this context is merely the correct bias – By hanging out with Catholics, you naturally soak up the biases of the group and bring these biases to scripture, reading it in a certain way. The Catholic claim is that we are biased, but our bias is inspired by the Holy Spirit. In this way a Catholic who reads the bible is better off, because they are immersed in an inspired tradition which guides them to a correct reading of scripture.

Again, this is not completely wrong, but in my experience it tends to fly directly over the Evangelicals heads. They will start rambling on about the “clarity” of scripture in a pathetic attempt to deny the fact that bias has anything to do with scriptural interpretation. Supposedly the bible is so “clear” that it can cut through our bias and present the unadulterated truth directly to us. This is obviously utter nonsense, and this is easily demonstrable by observing the violent doctrinal disagreements that Sola Scriptura Fundamentalists get tangled up in while trying to decide with each other what the bible oh so clearly says.

The Catechism’s Definition

It is helpful to examine what the Church officially teaches concerning tradition. The current official stance of the church has been distilled into the paragraphs of the Catechism. While these definitions and reflections are not infallible, they are a helpful starting point for someone investigating these issues surrounding tradition.

II. THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN TRADITION AND SACRED SCRIPTURE

One common source. . .

80 “Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, then, are bound closely together, and communicate one with the other. For both of them, flowing out from the same divine well-spring, come together in some fashion to form one thing, and move towards the same goal.” Each of them makes present and fruitful in the Church the mystery of Christ, who promised to remain with his own “always, to the close of the age”.

. . . two distinct modes of transmission

81 “Sacred Scripture is the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit.”

“And [Holy] Tradition transmits in its entirety the Word of God which has been entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit. It transmits it to the successors of the apostles so that, enlightened by the Spirit of truth, they may faithfully preserve, expound and spread it abroad by their preaching.”

82 As a result the Church, to whom the transmission and interpretation of Revelation is entrusted, “does not derive her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone. Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence.”

 

The Magisterium of the Church

85 “The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ.” This means that the task of interpretation has been entrusted to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome.

86 “Yet this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it. At the divine command and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it listens to this devotedly, guards it with dedication and expounds it faithfully. All that it proposes for belief as being divinely revealed is drawn from this single deposit of faith.”

87 Mindful of Christ’s words to his apostles: “He who hears you, hears me”, the faithful receive with docility the teachings and directives that their pastors give them in different forms.

The dogmas of the faith

88 The Church’s Magisterium exercises the authority it holds from Christ to the fullest extent when it defines dogmas, that is, when it proposes, in a form obliging the Christian people to an irrevocable adherence of faith, truths contained in divine Revelation or also when it proposes, in a definitive way, truths having a necessary connection with these.

89 There is an organic connection between our spiritual life and the dogmas. Dogmas are lights along the path of faith; they illuminate it and make it secure. Conversely, if our life is upright, our intellect and heart will be open to welcome the light shed by the dogmas of faith.

90 The mutual connections between dogmas, and their coherence, can be found in the whole of the Revelation of the mystery of Christ. “In Catholic doctrine there exists an order or hierarchy of truths, since they vary in their relation to the foundation of the Christian faith.”

The full page of the Catechism containing these extracts can be found here.

3-legged-stool[1]These extracts offer a decent, though incomplete picture of the relationship between Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium. Often the situation is presented as a metaphorical “three legged stool”. Scripture, Tradition and Magisterium are described as the three legs of a stool which the church sits on. Take any of them away and the whole thing topples over.

I personally think this usual explanation is a little misleading. It seems to set up scripture against tradition as if they are two rival sources of revelation and Catholics just so happen to embrace them both, whereas Protestants only receive one of them as authoritative. This only gives ammunition to the Protestants who then quote these official church documents and go “See! These Catholics believe in scripture plus tradition. They are just like the Pharisees who Jesus condemned!” The same problem arises with the definition of Magisterium: The magisterium seems to be being presented as some sort of alternative authority over and above scripture and tradition, and of course the cheeky Protestants cry fowl and accuse us of usurping the authority of God in favour of the authority of men. In reality Catholics believe no such thing. The most accurate way to describe the situation is that Catholics believe in a single authoritative deposit of faith, the entirety of which is referred to as Tradition. However this is a deposit of faith which grows as history marches on, and scripture is only one component of this Tradition.

Visible Manifestations of the Invisible Tradition

Recall the Apophatic definition of tradition. Tradition is inspired, ineffable, invisible, intangible. This is a good starting point. We spiritually live within this invisible tradition. However the ineffable tradition manifests in three concrete ways, which roughly correspond to the three legs of the aforementioned “three legged stool”. The three manifestations are thus: The scriptural tradition, the liturgical tradition, and the dogmatic tradition. These three traditions reflect the intangible and invisible tradition in a way that people can directly perceive and interact with.

Scriptural Tradition

The Scriptural Tradition is larger and more multifaceted than most people would realise, Catholics and Protestants alike. It consists of all translations and editions of scripture that have been implicitly received by all the apostolic communities around the world, as well as any translations or editions which have been explicitly approved by the Magisterium. As such, the Scriptural Tradition contains the Vulgate, the Septuagint, the Peshitta, the Greek New Testament, the Douay-Rheims, the RSV-CE and so on. When a Catholic theologian is doing theology, he has to respect all of these translations and editions. Priority is not given to any particular edition or translation, not even the original languages. All of the translations within the scriptural tradition are considered equally inspired and authoritative.

Liturgical Tradition

Similar to the Scriptural Tradition, the Liturgical Tradition consists of all liturgies which have been implicitly received by apostolic communities around the world, as well as all liturgies which have been explicitly approved by the Magisterium. Liturgies which have been implicitly received would include the Coptic, Armenian and Ethiopian liturgies, whereas liturgies which have been explicitly approved would include those of the Anglican Ordinariate, the Novus Ordo, the Neo-Catechumenal Use and the Tridentine Liturgy. A Catholic theologian must draw on the prayers, movements and symbolisms of all these different liturgies whilst formulating his theology. The maxim “lex orandi lex credendi” applies here: the Church believes as she prays. As such it is important to pay close attention to the many and varied liturgical rituals of the Church.

Dogmatic Tradition

This is the “Divine Clarification” aspect of the tradition. When the bishops of the church meet together in an ecumenical council approved by the Pope and come up with a list of canons or anathemas, these statements are considered divinely inspired and a crucial component of the Holy Tradition. The Pope can also define canons and anathemas outside of council. This list of infallible, inspired dogmatic statements grows as time marches on. New Dogmas can be established, but old ones can never be repealed. Once a dogma is defined it is set in stone for all time. Old dogmas can be “annulled” only if there is conclusive proof that they were never actually officially promulgated.

Dogmas are intended to clarify the tradition, making it’s boundaries more clear and defined. For example the biblical canon is a dogma which establishes the boundaries and limits of scripture.

All three of these components of the tradition may grow with time. New translations may be introduced to the Scriptural Tradition. New Liturgies may be approved, or existing liturgies may evolve, thus adding to the Liturgical Tradition. The list of dogmas grows as time goes by, thus expanding the Dogmatic tradition. Tradition is dynamic, not static. As language evolves, so does the scripture. As heresies rise and fall, the dogmas grow. As the spirit moves the church, new liturgies are introduced and old liturgies are altered.

prayer-and-meditation[1].jpgRemember, tradition is fundamentally invisible, and ineffable. It is something which you experience, something which you must live and breath, something that you must pray through. It is not primarily something which you “study”. It is only by praying your way into the tradition that you will truly encounter Christ. As such, merely studying the bible will not draw you into this sacred tradition or introduce you to Jesus: you must pray your way through the sacred words of holy writ. Incidentally this is why Catholics do not have “bible studies”, we instead have lectio divina – prayerful reading. Similarly, merely being present during a liturgy is not enough, you must unite yourself to the divine drama unfolding before you through deep, fervent and meditative prayer. Similarly with the dogmas, it is not enough to know them as some sort of check list of propositions to be believed, instead they are to be prayerfully received and trusted as lights along the path that leads to the fullness of the truth – Christ himself. They should be prayerfully wrestled with just as you would wrestle with scripture.

The magisterium has the task of defining the boundaries of these three things. The magisterium sets the canon of scripture, and approves new editions/translations. It also recognises certain liturgies as inspired, and has the authority to make additions and alterations to existing liturgies or introduce entirely new ones. And of course it is the task of the magisterium to receive divine clarification in the form of dogmas via Pope or council.

An important final note: it is not the task of the magisterium to provide an infallible interpretation of scripture, or the deposit of faith more broadly. The magisterium does indeed provide an interpretation for the sake of the common man who wants to be a faithful catholic and does not have the time to formulate his own unique position, but this interpretation is entirely fallible and disputable, merely representing the distilled sensus fidelium at the current point in history. Theologians are free to dispute almost anything the magisterium says. Theologians are only forced to respect the infallibility and inspiration of the three components of the Tradition defined in the post. Beyond that they are free to speculate until the cows come home.

Conclusion

Next time you’re in a discussion with a Protestant about Tradition, try to keep in mind the three-fold definition presented in this post. Tradition is indeed invisible, ineffable and intangible, however it manifests in exactly three ways: Liturgy, Scripture and Dogma. These three ways are visible, effable and tangible manifestations of the Tradition, similarly to how Christ visibly manifests the invisible, ineffable, intangible God. All three of these manifestations are inspired and authoritative, and Protestants are doing themselves a disservice by only receiving the scriptural tradition while rejecting the liturgical and dogmatic traditions. Scripture is not separate to tradition, scripture IS tradition.

Private Interpretation and the Scope of Catholic Theology

One of the complaints that Catholics commonly throw at Protestants is that their doctrine of “Private Interpretation” leads to doctrinal anarchy: When you’re doing theology with a mindset of “The Bible, the Holy Spirit and Me” it’s inevitably going to lead to massively inflated egos, widespread doctrinal disagreements and an intensely burning pride.

What I recently realised is that Catholics are almost in the same boat as Protestants. The fact that Catholics have a magisterium doesn’t necessarily change anything: in the end Catholic theology boils down to “private interpretation”. The question needs to be asked however; private interpretation of what? I will answer this question shortly.

Sheep and Shepherds

ccc_book[1].jpgIt seems apparent to me that there are basically two ways to “do religion”. The first involves just accepting and familiarising yourself with whatever the church officially teaches, without questioning or disagreeing with anything. If you are being a Catholic in this way, you don’t necessarily “switch off your brain”, as you may very well try to wrestle with the doctrines presented to you and try to make sense of them, but you do go with the flow and just subscribe to official teaching without question. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is particularly important to someone doing Catholicism in this way, as it clearly spells out exactly what the church teaches on pretty much every issue. Often when arguing with someone who “does Catholicism” in this way, they will throw quotes from the Catechism at you as if doing so definitively settles the issue and totally closes the argument: “no more discussion necessary, the church has spoken, case closed”.

People who follow this first path are actually are to be commended. This way of approaching Catholicism is actually entirely appropriate for the majority of Christians. It is simply a brute fact of life that not everyone has the time, inclination and calling to wrestle with 2000 years of church tradition, scripture, biblical languages, theology and philosophy. Not everyone is called to be a theologian or an exegete. Not everyone is called to study the bible. However everyone is called to submit to Christ, and to the church which he founded. We are the sheep and they are the shepherds. The sheep’s duty is simple: follow the shepherd wherever the shepherd may lead. In this way, it is entirely appropriate to fall back on the official interpretations of the church, which have been distilled and refined over 2000 years and represent the sensus fidelium at the current point in time. It is a brute fact of life that most people don’t have the time to engage in theology; their time is largely occupied by the hard work and more pressing issue of being a good programmer, plumber, carpenter, student, doctor etc. For such people, it is a blessing to have an official interpretation which they can depend on for their faith, whilst being active and occupied in the “real world”.

Discerning the Light

St.Augustine[1].jpgThere is however a second way of “doing Catholicism”, this way is the path of the theologian. The theologian recognises that the official interpretation of the church is not infallible. The theologian understands that the sensus fidelium is not infallible. The theologian knows that the Pope is not infallible. The theologian always keeps in mind that the Catechism is just one fallible voice among many.

Rather than simply following whatever the church says, the theologian has decided to embark on a much more difficult journey: a journey which involves familiarising himself with 2000 years of church documents, writings of the church fathers, scripture translations and editions, biblical and liturgical languages, philosophy, theology and so on.

The theologian is entirely justified in disagreeing with the official teaching of the church. The theologian is more acutely aware of the limits and bounds of infallibility. If there is something suspect in the official teaching of the church, he will call it out.

If you are following this second path, you have already entered into the realm of “private interpretation”: what you end up believing will probably be completely different to what everyone else believes. And yet despite this the problem of “doctrinal anarchy” which plagues Protestantism will not be a problem for you. The reason why is that Catholicism is a dogmatic system which has something akin to continuing revelation which I refer to as Divine Clarification. Despite the fact that the deposit of faith was “once for all delivered to the saints”, it is not a static thing: it is something which grows and develops with time.

The Deposit of Faith

hebrew-bible[1].jpgIt is helpful to first establish what a historical-critical Protestant believes to be the Deposit of Faith. Such a Protestant believes that the original Greek and Hebrew manuscripts of the 66 books of the reformation bible are the entire deposit of faith. Case closed. If you are a protestant theologian this is all you need to work with. Learn Hebrew, Learn Greek and get down to the hard work of exegeting scripture. Translations are helpful but they hold a lesser authority to the original languages and can therefore be safely discarded when doing serious theology.

I would like to register a reservation with this perspective before moving on. Firstly, we no longer have access to the original Greek and Hebrew manuscripts. We only have critical editions and copies of copies, all of which differ with each other. Protestants often respond to this by saying that the differences are “insignificant”. I personally am unimpressed with this line of argument, as it would imply that parts of sacred scripture can be safely discarded, which is surely a blasphemous conclusion. While we can have confidence that our critical editions are close to the originals, we have no actual infallible guarantee that this is the case, and there is therefore a cloud of uncertainty constantly hovering over such versions of scripture.

In any case, this is the protestant version of the deposit of faith: the 66 book canon, read in the original languages.

2vsn_1271[1].jpgCompare this with the Catholic deposit of faith. The Catholic deposit of faith is a massive behemoth to behold. A Catholic does not merely have to concern himself with the scriptures in their original languages; he also has to take into account all translations of the scripture which have been implicitly received by an apostolic tradition or explicitly approved by the magisterium of the church. In this way, a Catholic does not have to work with a single bible or a single translation; he instead has to take into account a massive plethora of translations and editions. The Vulgate has authority, but the Septuagint with Greek New Testament holds equal authority. The Peshitta has authority, but the RSV-CE holds equal authority. Approved Spanish editions of Scripture are just as inspired and authoritative as approved French editions. The more languages a Catholic theologian knows, the more of the deposit of faith he is able to familiarise himself with and therefore the more effectively he is able to do theology.

But the Catholic deposit of faith doesn’t end there. The only reason that scripture is inspired, is that it is read in the context of the Divine Liturgy. The received apostolic liturgies of the church are inspired by the Holy Spirit: God speaks through the liturgy well before he speaks through scripture. But this only makes the Catholic theologian’s job even harder: not only does he have to concern himself with all the approved editions of scripture, he also has to be familiar with all the different apostolic and approved liturgies that are to be found throughout the world and within the church! And of course, a liturgy is not something that can be experienced by reading a book; it is not something which you can understand just by watching it on Youtube or reading about it on Wikipedia; a liturgy has to be lived and breathed. You must participate in the liturgy and pray through it. You must be physically present. If you’re lucky enough to live in a city like Sydney, many of these liturgies can be found within a 50km radius. However if you’re living out in the country side, you’ll be lucky to get a single Latin Mass.

But wait, there’s more! The Catholic deposit of faith has another component: the dogmatic tradition. The dogmatic tradition is the Divine Clarification which I mentioned earlier. This dogmatic tradition consists of all the infallible statements produced by ecumenical councils and all ex cathedra statements pronounced by Popes. A Catholic theologian has to take this entire tradition into account and do justice to it.

To review: Both the Catholic and the Protestant theologian are engaging in private interpretation. The only difference is the scope of the “raw data” that the respective theologians have to deal with. A Protestant theologian only has to deal with 66 Greek and Hebrew books, whereas a Catholic theologian has to deal with a multitude of scriptural translations, a plethora of divine liturgies and 2000 years of dogmatic pronouncements.

The Strength of Catholicism

After reading the previous section, you might think that the Protestant is better off: he doesn’t have to deal with so much raw material during his theological inquiries. However there’s one important difference between these two conceptions of the deposit of faith: The Protestant version is entirely static, whereas the Catholic version is dynamic.

As the collective Catholic understanding of the deposit of faith grows, this understanding is codified and added back in to the deposit of faith itself in the form of a fresh dogma. After this happens, future theologians are forced to take the new dogma into account during their theological adventures. The dogma is set in stone, it can never be revoked (although perhaps it may be “annulled” if there is doubt surrounding whether or not it was ever officially promulgated). This keeps the Catholic church moving forward in it’s understanding: as the church encounters controversies and issues, it deliberates and investigates and comes to a conclusion; this conclusion is then codified in a dogma and inserted into the dogmatic tradition, where it will remain forever. This is how doctrinal development occurs.

Consider for a moment what would happen if everyone were following the “first way” of doing Catholicism described above. There would never be any development! Everyone would just accept the churches current interpretation of the deposit of faith and not try to push the envelope to any degree. This is why – ironically – private interpretation is actually a crucial component of Catholic theological development. Individual people who are following the “theologian” path all come together, raise issues, argue with each other, start up passionate debates. This sometimes leads to massive controversies in the church, at which point the magisterium steps in and declares a dogma, definitively deciding between the two parties.

A065_VaticanII[1].jpgThis process of dogmatic Divine Clarification also forces theologians to stay largely on the same page and avoid the doctrinal anarchy which so plagues Protestantism. Even though theologians may disagree on important issues, they are forced to work within the same dynamic deposit of faith, and this keeps them in agreement on issues that the magisterium has already dogmatically pronounced on. They may disagree on the interpretation of the deposit of faith, however they cannot deny the deposit of faith itself.

Compare all of this with the static Protestant system: The Protestant system is entirely unable to respond to change and is prevented from developing. The protestants have a battle cry – “Semper Reformanda” – which is supposed to be taken as a call for the church to be “always reforming”. In theory this is supposed to imply a rejection of all dogma, however in practice most if not all Protestants have their own “pet doctrines” which they cling to dogmatically and will not budge from even when shown contradictory evidence.

In any case, the Protestant deposit of faith is entirely static: it cannot respond to fresh questions that are posed of it. They have no magisterium which can introduce new and authoritative clarifying dogmas into the religion. They are stuck in the past. They are forced to depend entirely upon the fallible historical-critical method for all of their exegetical attempts. They deny the inspired voice of the church in the present age. All of this results in a church community which is constantly going around in circles and reinventing the wheel. Where Catholics have dogmatically defined the Trinity and the divinity of Christ, the Protestants are constantly having to rediscover these ideas afresh in the pages of scripture. Unfortunately, due to their over-reliance on the entirely fallible historical-critical method, many Protestants have begun to jettison many of these crucial Christian ideas. Many Christians have become Unitarians, or modern day Arians, denying the divinity of Christ. Unlike Catholicism, there is no “dogmatic spine” holding up the Protestant theological body. Protestants agree on the same deposit of faith, but beyond that they are free to disagree with each other at the level of interpretation and they are doomed to disagree with each other until Jesus comes back. Again, compare to the Catholic system: Catholic theologians may disagree with each other for a time, but as the ages march on and the magisterium declares more and more dogmas, the theologian’s many and varied opinions will coalesce into a single infallible interpretation.

Conclusion

To summarise: The Catholic deposit of faith is large and multifaceted, encompassing all received and approved bible translations, all apostolic liturgies and all infallible statements within the dogmatic tradition. When a Catholic theologian is doing theology, he has to take this entire deposit of faith into account. The end result is a form of Private Interpretation that is restricted and guided by the dogmatic tradition. However rather than being destructive and dangerous for the church, this limited private interpretation is a crucial component of doctrinal development and serves to drive the church forward towards theological perfection.

Questions of Canon and Ecumenism

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I remember being surprised, baffled and deeply intrigued when I discovered that there were different canons of scripture out in the world. As time went on, I began to wonder what the implications were for ecumenism. I began to wonder what the implications were for faith: If a community of confirmed, faithful Christians firmly believe that God is speaking to them through a book which has not been approved by the infallible magisterium of the Holy Catholic Church, what does it mean?

I would like to propose a brief solution. The idea is that there are inspired scriptures which are catholic, which is to say “universal”. Such scriptures are addressed by God to every individual who has ever lived. These scriptures must be received and respected by anyone who is attempting to engage in theology. They cannot be discarded or dismissed. The canon of the universal scriptures was dogmatically promulgated by the council of Trent, and canonically promulgated many times prior to that at local councils.

220px-Ethiopian_Madonna[1].jpgHowever, there are also inspired scriptures which are not catholic. That is to say, they are local, private, or specific to a specific time, place or group of people. A classic example would be the Ethiopian Orthodox canon of scripture. The Ethiopian tradition includes many books which are not to be found outside of that specific church. Are we to simply dismiss this as a theological error by the Ethiopians? How can we do this, when their bishops are all validly ordained, and therefore their received liturgies are just as inspired as the approved Catholic liturgies. In this situation, whatever scripture they have read and received in their liturgy would logically also be inspired. The solution to this problem is to say that these texts are indeed inspired, however they are only addressed to the Ethiopian church: people who are outside of this church need not pay any attention to these texts. It is similar to the doctrine of “private revelation” in the Catholic church. These revelations are private, addressed to discrete groups of people rather than the whole of humanity.

Another example concerns the Eastern Orthodox canon. The Eastern Orthodox include three extra books and one extra psalm in their canon. These additions could be ecumenically received as local inspired texts, rather than catholic inspired texts. As such, they are relevant to churches in the eastern tradition, because they have been received within that tradition, however people who are not immersed in that tradition and do not have any connection to it do not need to heed these books.

downloadThe principle could be applied and extended out wide in order to encompass other religions and cults. For example the Church of Latter Day Saints have their own tradition within which certain scriptures have been received (for example, the Book of Mormon). If they were to one day come back into communion with the Holy Catholic Church, they could be permitted to retain their unique scriptures provided that they are understood to be local revelation rather than catholic revelation. Of course, it is to be assumed that their received scriptures are interpreted in a way that is consistent with the rest of the deposit of faith. In this particular case it would probably call for a purely allegorical interpretation of the Book of Mormon.

Potentially we could re-approach the Jews with this principle in mind. We could allow them to take the Hebrew old testament and apply it as they wish. Even though we know that the law is not binding on Christians, Jewish Christians may choose to follow the law regardless, as it is part of their tradition and heritage.

The Islamic traditions are also fair game. Potentially one day there will be an “Islamic Ordinariate” or a Sui Iuris church which traces it’s heritage to the Islamic world. Such a church would have a heavily Islamised liturgy, wherein the faithful pray the Salat towards the Eucharist set in a monstrance during adoration (for example). It would 220px-Mosque[1]potentially by acceptable for them to retain the Qu’ran as a local inspired text within this tradition, provided that the Qu’ran is understood and interpreted in a way that is consistent with the deposit of faith. Potentially an edited, “Christian” edition of the Qu’ran could be produced which edits and deals with troublesome passages, however this would not be optimal.

The same principle could be used to inculturate all cultures and religious traditions: Let the people retain as much of what they already have as is possible, including their scriptures. Just be careful to make it clear that any scripture they bring to the table is local revelation rather than catholic revelation: It’s authoritative for people within that specific community, but not binding on anyone else.

This principle is helpful in evangelism, as it accords well with Pauls admonition to “be all things to all people”. Paul wants us to be a Jew to Jews, a Muslim to Muslims, a Buddhist to Buddhists and a Hindu to Hindus. As missionaries we should strive to be as thorough in this task as we can, adopting as much of the local religion as we can in good conscience and without compromising our principles, so as to win the people over to Christ.