Friday, September 11, 2009

Response to MG (1) On the Perspecuity of Scripture

The following is a response to MG who commented on a post titled "Cyril of Jerusalem (2)" in addition to some other ones. I have responded to him topically and would like to see other people voice their opinions. In particular, MG seems to think the idea of "private judgment" is key to Sola Scriptura. He may also view it in opposition to Church infallibility or to a lesser degree, even the Rule of Faith.

In order to save space I will be responding to this entire post topically and not in the order of what was first said since there is a lot of overlap. Let us begin.

Church Authority
You are right to say that we do not believe the Church has an inherent authority. Instead, as Protestants we believe the Church has a derived authority from Scripture (tracing back from the apostles from Christ). Under this model does the Church have real authority? Absolutely, unless you define real authority as infallible authority. A prophet has no authority in and of himself; however he is considered an authority because he speaks the Words of God. In another sense, the Church preserving and proclaiming the Word of God has authority in a derived sense. They are not communicating their own invention but rather what they received from the apostles and the apostles from God. If they decide to teach that God is actually four persons in one, then they stop having authority since they are no longer deriving it from the Word of God and have been cut off from the source. Another way in that the Church can be authoritative is thus: someone within the Church teaches that Jesus was not God and therefore the Church can kick them out. On what grounds? The apostolic word that comes from God Himself. This apostolic word is in Scripture and reflected in the Rule of Faith.

Many Reformed Protestants point towards one tradition committed to the Church in oral form and later in written form (the apostles spoke to them and then later put words into writings). The content is identical. The Rule of Faith and Scripture. The former was written into the later.

You asked: “Why should we accept the Church’s inferences from Scripture about what the New Testament teaches, if there is nothing inherently normative about the Church’s inferences?”

Because it goes back very early to the key apostolic source and the writings we have now, it all seems to line up strongly with it. Sadly, there is no one hundred percent certainty here since our judgments themselves are not infallible and so recognizing which is the derived authority (or infallible if EO is right) is not absolutely full proof. Still, in order for the Church to hear what the apostles spoke and wrote and preserve it, she does not necessarily need to have the inherent authority within herself.

It is my belief that the Church of the first four centuries did not believe the Church in of itself was inherently authoritative (or containing infallible authority). If this is the case then it would seem as though the Church could function authoritatively without being so inherently. For this I am still in the process of research but I am open to any other Church father quotes you wish to provide here for inspection on this matter.

Private Judgment and Conscience
How does private judgment and conscience play into this?
You defined private judgment as the denial of the believers’ conscience being bound by the inherent interpretative authority of other Christians. Since this is what you meant I apologize and agree with you that we deny the Church’s inherent interpretive authority. This mostly comes from the context of the Roman Catholic Church and situations surrounding her exercise of authority. It might also apply to the EO in that we do not think the Church has the inherent authority it claims to have.

However, this outlook does not put the inherent authority in the individual believer either. Rather, he has the task of judging and searching for the inherent authority. He must decide and be held responsible accordingly. If for some reason he decides that God is actually five chimpanzees in two essences then he will be held accountable for his beliefs and judged by the Church as a heretic – or possibly a mere loon. The Church rightly judges him too because she is deriving her authority from the Word of God. There is a correct interpretation of Scripture and its essentials are clear enough that the Church and the individual believer studying within her can come to a unified understanding.

Question for clarity: are you defining private judgment in a way that puts it at the absence of Church infallibility or inherent interpretive authority?

Perspicuity to Authority?
You said: It does not follow from the perspicuity of Scripture that the Church has authority.

Again, the Church only has authority in a derivative sense. Its authority comes from the apostolic and prophetic word (contained in Scripture). The idea is that God is communicating His very Words (which are infallible) in Scripture in order to bring about the salvation of the world. He wants to be understood and has made Himself clear enough.

Here is where perspicuity interacts with the Rule of Faith (two ways you can go):

1) People hear or read these words and understand them well enough to give their lives to God, and that all of these people are in agreement on these essential matters (Rule of Faith). They may express the exact same ideas in different words but the content is all the same more or less. Because the content is identical to the apostolic word, the authority is derivative.

2) The apostles communicate orally what ought to be believed and then write their words down as well in a manner that is understandable. The people listen, understand it and pass it on – checking the writings the apostles gave them and even checking with the apostles themselves while they were alive. The content is the same. Because the content is identical to the apostolic word the authority is derivative.

The idea I am trying to express here is that the Church’s authority is derived from the apostolic word and that this word ultimately coming from God is the source of understandable authority.

Patristics and SS
What indication does one need from the Church fathers in order to accept SS and reject RC or EO on a merely patristic basis?

So far as my studies have taken me (and I still have a long way to go), it seems the following are needed for SS:

 Indication that Scripture and Tradition are not mutually exclusive ideas in the early period of the Church (same content).
 The material sufficiency of Scripture.
 The ultimate authority of Scripture.
 The formal sufficiency and perspicuity of Scripture.
 Maybe the self-interpreting nature of Scripture.
 An absence of a widely held belief in Church infallibility.

I think the first four centuries are the best place to start because they are more near to the apostles. There are other conditions that need to be in stone in order to accept an EO or RC model, but for now I think it is enough to cast serious doubt on their positions if one can not find a clear indication of a belief in Church infallibility within these early periods.

Specific Questions and concerns:
1) I said: “If you want to just talk about whether interpretations are inherently normative to bind consciences go for it. I have yet to see anything unambiguous out of the early church fathers or anything convincing by ways of reason…even less so from Scripture.”

You said: I’m just trying to show that your quotes do not exclusively support SS. I think that when we supplement the quotes that you give with quotes that affirm the binding authority of hierarchs’ judgments, and the infallibility of the Creed, the infallibility of the Ecumenical Councils, etc. we get the conclusion that the Fathers taught Prima Scriptura, not Sola Scriptura. I will continue to argue for this slowly but surely.

Yes, some of the quotes may be elements needed for another Tradition model. These quotes are aimed at supporting SS (this includes these) and ultimately dismantling the claim that SS is unhistorical or without Church father support – an invention of the Reformers. If all of the essential elements of SS are in place and there is an absence of early support for Church infallibility, then the critique might cut the other way.

2) I said: “Rather, the expectation is that if an individual studies the Scriptures he will gain what he needs for salvation because the Scriptures have what is needed…this same thing will also be reflected in the Rule of Faith. For those who are illiterate and unable to study the Scriptures a summary creed was provided in line with what everyone else agreed the Scriptures said was needed for salvation.”

You said: Okay, perhaps, but how does any of that show that Cyril denied the normativity of some interpretations of Scripture?

So far, I suspect there are no unambiguous texts from the early periods of the Church that support Church infallibility or the infallibility of her interpretations. One does not need a quote denying it from a given period if the concept did not exist yet. This would be on your end to support and mine to consider.

3) You said: The specific doctrinal formulation of the Rule of Faith is not contained in Scripture, which does not state the words that Irenaeus, Tertullian, and others used. Surely the words are distinct, even if the concepts are the same.

Yes, but the concept is what we are looking at. If it said something different from what Scripture claimed then we might have to choose between the two. But that might cause problems for the two of us – we might have to acknowledge a more Roman Catholic two-source tradition concept or, if the two are actually at odds with one another (it not being confirmed in Scripture as Cyril says) then we might suppose that we have been given a fraudulent Rule or Faith or that somehow the Word of God (in whatever form that might take) is not understandable (this goes for oral tradition and church statements as well) and perhaps God does not wish to be known in any significant way.

4) You said: “The fact that the specific words are not in the Scriptures means there are two distinct things that may or may not be authoritative: Scriptural teaching that is conceptually identical to the Rule of Faith, and the doctrinal formulation of the Rule of Faith itself.

Even if you agree with the concepts taught in the Rule of Faith, and think they are authoritatively taught in the Bible, this doesn’t entail that you think the *specific formulation* of these concepts in the Rule of Faith is inherently authoritative. So there is a distinction between the Rule of Faith and Scripture, even though there is no opposition."

Either way, the Rule of Faith is derivative. They are not the very words of the apostles. The concepts within are authoritative in a derivative sense. Maybe this might be one way to look at the practice of the individual when interpreting Scripture: he uses several tools at his disposal including his reason (something even one from a high church uses) as he participates with the Christian community when looking at the text. Keep this in mind while considering Luther's statement about there being no salvation outside of the Church. Not all interpretations are equal and on key matters we have no excuse because these things are clear to all.


MG said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
MG said...


(1) What do you mean by the word "authority"?

(2) What do you mean by the words "derivative authority"?

(3) Do you think there is a difference between authority and accuracy? If so, what is the difference on your view?

Catz206 said...

Derive: 1 a : to take, receive, or obtain especially from a specified source b : to obtain (a chemical substance) actually or theoretically from a parent substance

2 a : power to influence or command thought, opinion, or behavior b : freedom granted by one in authority
3 a : persons in command; specifically : government b : a governmental agency or corporation to administer a revenue-producing public enterprise

Catz206 said...

Here, when it is said the Church has derivative authority it means the Church is one to be obeyed and followed (perhaps in a similar way as we follow the law of the land). Perhaps it can also be said that God put those in the Church in authority over us. However, their authority is derivative. They get their authority from God or God’s Word. If the Church were to make something out to be essential to faith that is not or tells us to do something contrary to God’s teaching we are obligated not to obey. The first course of action where the Church is concerned should be reconciliation and restoration. This is what Luther first tried to do. As Christians we are also guided by the rule of love and unity (John 15 and 1 John) and are not simply mechanically obeying or disobeying an authority.

I hope this helps.

My question to you: do you private judgment as something directly at odds with infallible authority? Please answer as concisely as you can. Thank you : )

MG said...


You wrote:

“Here, when it is said the Church has derivative authority it means the Church is one to be obeyed and followed (perhaps in a similar way as we follow the law of the land).”

You say that the Church has power to influence or command thought, opinion, or behavior on your view. When the Church commands you to believe an interpretation of Scripture, does it (a) only have power to do this when its interpretation agrees with your private judgment? Or can it (b) override your private judgment, binding your conscience to accept its interpretation?

You wrote:

“Perhaps it can also be said that God put those in the Church in authority over us.”

Does their authority over us consist at least partially in their decisions being more normative than ours? Does “Church leaders x1, x2, x3… xn said that doctrine y is true” serve as a stronger reason to accept doctrine y than “I came to the conclusion that y is true based on my own inferences from Scripture”? If not, in what sense are they “over us”?

MG said...

You wrote:

“However, their authority is derivative. They get their authority from God or God’s Word. If the Church were to make something out to be essential to faith that is not or tells us to do something contrary to God’s teaching we are obligated not to obey.”

Do they just get their authority from having the right interpretation of Scripture? If so, when they are claiming to have the right interpretation of Scripture, can your private judgment override their claim to teach the correct interpretation of the Bible? Or does their judgment have the ability to overturn your claim to correctly interpret Scripture?

I agree that Church authority is derivative, and that it derives in some sense from Scripture. More correctly, it derives from God. The question seems to be whether that authority is intrinsic, or relative. My post here offers some clarification of this distinction in section 2:

for context, see the discussion here:

It seems like you must say the authority of the Church is relative, not intrinsic. That seems to be what you are getting at when you say “derivative”. But it is hard to see how this is real authority; after all, it basically

You wrote:

“My question to you: do you private judgment as something directly at odds with infallible authority? Please answer as concisely as you can. Thank you : )”

I defined private judgment as “the denial that a believer's conscience can be bound by the inherent authority of the interpretive/doctrinal decisions of other Christians”. An infallible authority is one that “under some conditions, is capable of making decisions that have an unqualified normativity, which involves the inability to be wrong in making the decision. These decisions make it necessary without exception to believe or do as the authority says.” So if the Church is infallible, then the doctrine of private judgment is false, and visa versa. The two ideas are directly at odds.

Also, I would like to suggest that we are not talking about the perspicuity of Scripture. My argument for the infallibility of the Church is not directly related to issues of perspicuity.

Jnorm888 said...

The view of the early church was "Prima" scriptura.....not "solo or sola" scriptura.


Jnorm888 said...

And the authority of the Local churches in communion with the local Bishop was always an "intrinsic" authority.

And since, scripture is an "aspect" of tradition and not separate from it, then scripture is only one source in which it derives it's authority. It ultimately derives it's authority from God.

The Apostles had authority, and they in turn gave the Bishops and elders of the churches authority. I have been reading the pre-nicene and nicene church fathers off and on for 12 years, so it's pretty clear to me that they weren't protestant......especially Reformed or Restorationist protestant.


Catz206 said...


A response is up for you in the next post

Thankx for your thoughts