A Compelling Argument AGAINST Sola Scriptura? (The Scriptures Alone) Part 3
I just couldn’t resist reposting this article by Father John Whiteford, who happens to be an Eastern Orthodox priest. If you are a Protestant like me, then you may have never even heard of the Orthodox church, I know I had not. I am very grateful that I have discovered them. The following is a very well thought out rejection of one of the cornerstones of the Protestant Reformation: Scripture Alone. Read it with an open mind and then share your thoughts with the rest of us. I think he makes some good points. It is a very long article, so I will break it up into 4 parts. Here’s Part 3: Read part 1 HERE Read part 2 here
C. PROTESTANT INTERPRETIVE APPROACHES THAT DONT WORK
Even from the very earliest days of the Reformation, Protestants have been forced to deal with the fact that, given the Bible and the reason of the individual alone, people could not agree upon the meaning of many of the most basic questions of doctrine. Within Martin Luthers own life dozens of competing groups had arisen, all claiming to “just believe the Bible,” but none agreeing on what the Bible said. Though Luther had courageously stood before the Diet of Worms and said that unless he were persuaded by Scripture, or by plain reason, he would not retract anything that he had been teaching; later, when Anabaptists, who disagreed with the Lutherans on a number of points, simply asked for the same indulgence, the Lutherans butchered them by the thousands — so much for the rhetoric about the “right of an individual to read the Scriptures for himself.” Despite the obvious problems that the rapid splintering of Protestantism presented to the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, not willing to concede defeat to the Pope, Protestants instead concluded that the real problem must be that those with whom they disagree, in other words every other sect but their own, must not be reading the Bible correctly. Thus a number of approaches have been set forth as solutions to this problem. Of course there has yet to be the approach that could reverse the endless multiplications of schisms, and yet Protestants still search for the elusive methodological “key” that will solve their problem. Let us examine the most popular approaches that have been tried thus far, each of which are still set forth by one group or another
APPROACH # 1 Just take the Bible literally — the meaning is clear.
This approach was no doubt the first approach used by the Reformers, though very early on they came to realize that by itself this was an insufficient solution to the problems presented by the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. Although this one was a failure from the start, this approach still is the most common one to be found among the less educated Fundamentalists, Evangelicals and Charismatics — “The Bible says what it means and means what it says,” is an oft heard phrase. But when it comes to Scriptural texts that Protestants generally do not agree with, such as when Christ gave the Apostles the power to forgive sins (John 20:23), or when He said of the Eucharist “this is my body…. this is my blood” (Matthew 26:26,28), or when Paul taught that women should cover their heads in Church (I Corinthians 11:1-16), then all of a sudden the Bible doesnt say what it means any more — “Why, those verses arent literal…”
APPROACH # 2 The Holy Spirit provides the correct understanding.
When presented with the numerous groups that arose under the banner of the Reformation that could not agree on their interpretations of the Scriptures, no doubt the second solution to the problem was the assertion that the Holy Spirit would guide the pious Protestant to interpret the Scriptures rightly. Of course everyone who disagreed with you could not possibly be guided by the same Spirit. The result was that each Protestant group de-Christianized all those that differed from them. Now if this approach were a valid one, that would only leave history with one group of Protestants that had rightly interpreted the Scriptures. But which of the thousands of denominations could it be? Of course the answer depends on which Protestant you are speaking to. One thing we can be sure of — he or she probably thinks his or her group is it.
Today, however, (depending on what stripe of Protestant you come into contact with) you are more likely to run into Protestants who have relativized the Truth to some degree or another than to find those who still maintain that their sect or splinter group is the “only one” which is “right.” As denominations stacked upon denominations it became a correspondingly greater stretch for any of them to say, with a straight face, that only they had rightly understood the Scriptures, though there still are some who do. It has become increasingly common for each Protestant group to minimize the differences between denominations and simply conclude that in the name of “love” those differences “do not matter.” Perhaps each group has “a piece of the Truth,” but none has the whole Truth (so the reasoning goes). Thus the pan-heresy of Ecumenism had its birth. Now many “Christians” will not even stop their ecumenical efforts at allowing only Christian groups to have a piece of the Truth. Many “Christians” now also believe that all religions have “pieces of the Truth.” The obvious conclusion that modern Protestants have made is that to find all the Truth each group will have to shed their “differences,” pitch their “piece of Truth” into the pot, and presto-chango —the whole Truth will be found at last!
APPROACH # 3 Let the clear passages interpret the unclear.
This must have seemed the perfect solution to the problem of how to interpret the Bible by itself — let the easily understood passages “interpret” those which are not clear. The logic of this approach is simple, though one passage may state a truth obscurely, surely the same truth would be clearly stated elsewhere in Scripture. Simply use these “clear passages” as the key and you will have unlocked the meaning of the “obscure passage.” As the Tubingen Lutheran scholars argued in their first exchange of letters with Patriarch Jeremias II:
Therefore, no better way could ever be found to interpret the Scriptures, other than that Scripture be interpreted by Scripture, that is to say, through itself. For the entire Scripture has been dictated by the one and the same Spirit, who best understands his own will and is best able to state His own meaning.10
As promising as this method seemed, it soon proved an insufficient solution to the problem of Protestant chaos and divisions. The point at which this approach disintegrates is in determining which passages are “clear” and which are “obscure.” Baptists, who believe that it is impossible for a Christian to lose his salvation once he is “saved,” see a number of passages which they maintain quite clearly teach their doctrine of “Eternal Security” — for example, “For the gifts and callings of God are without repentance” (Romans 11:29), and “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: and I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand” (John 10:27-28). But when Baptists come across verses which seem to teach that salvation can be lost, such as “The righteousness of the righteous shall not deliver him in the day of his transgression” (Ezekiel 33:12), then they use the passages that are “clear” to explain away the passages that are “unclear.” Methodists, who believe that believers may lose their salvation if they turn their backs on God, find no such obscurity in such passages, and on the contrary, view the above mentioned Baptist “proof-texts” in the light of the passages that they see as “clear.” And so Methodists and Baptists throw verses of the Bible back and forth at each other, each wondering why the other cant “see” what seems very “clear” to them.
APPROACH # 4 Historical-Critical Exegesis
Drowning in a sea of subjective opinion and division, Protestants quickly began grasping for any intellectual method with a fig leaf of objectivity. As time went by and divisions multiplied, science and reason increasingly became the standard by which Protestant theologians hoped to bring about consistency in their biblical interpretations. This “scientific” approach, which has come to predominate Protestant Scholarship, and in this century has even begun to predominate Roman Catholic Scholarship, is generaly referred to as “Historical-Critical Exegesis.” With the dawn of the so-called “Enlightenment,” science seemed to be capable of solving all the worlds problems. Protestant Scholarship began applying the philosophy and methodology of the sciences to theology and the Bible. Since the Enlightenment, Protestant scholars have analyzed every aspect of the Bible: its history, its manuscripts, the biblical languages, etc. As if the Holy Scriptures were an archaeological dig, these scholars sought to analyze each fragment and bone with the best and latest that science had to offer. To be fair, it must be stated that much useful knowledge was produced by such scholarship. Unfortunately this methodology has erred also, grievously and fundamentally, but it has been portrayed with such an aura of scientific objectivity that holds many under its spell.
Like all the other approaches used by Protestants, this method also seeks to understand the Bible while ignoring Church Tradition. Though there is no singular Protestant method of exegesis, they all have as their supposed goal to “let the Scripture speak for itself.” Of course no one claiming to be Christian could be against what the Scripture would “say” if it were indeed “speaking for itself” through these methods. The problem is that those who appoint themselves as tongues for the Scripture filter it through their own Protestant assumptions. While claiming to be objective, they rather interpret the Scriptures according to their own sets of traditions and dogmas (be they fundamentalists or liberal rationalists). What Protestant scholars have done (if I may loosely borrow a line from Albert Schweitzer) is looked into the well of history to find the meaning of the Bible. They have written volume upon volume on the subject, but unfortunately they have only seen their own reflections.
Protestant scholars (both “liberals” and “conservatives” have erred in that they have misapplied empirical methodologies to the realm of theology and biblical studies. I use the term “Empiricism” to describe these efforts. I am using this term broadly to refer to the rationalistic and materialistic worldview that has possessed the Western mind, and is continuing to spread throughout the world. Positivist systems of thought (of which Empiricism is one) attempt to anchor themselves on some basis of “certain” knowledge. 11 Empiricism, strictly speaking, is the belief that all knowledge is based on experience, and that only things which can be established by means of scientific observation can be known with certainty. Hand in hand with the methods of observation and experience, came the principle of methodological doubt, the prime example of this being the philosophy of Rene Descartes who began his discussion of philosophy by showing that everything in the universe can be doubted except ones own existence, and so with the firm basis of this one undoubtable truth (“I think, therefore I am”) he sought to build his system of philosophy. Now the Reformers, at first, were content with the assumption that the Bible was the basis of certainty upon which theology and philosophy could rest. But as the humanistic spirit of the Enlightenment gained in ascendancy, Protestant scholars turned their rationalistic methods on the Bible itself—seeking to discover what could be known with “certainty” from it. Liberal Protestant scholars have already finished this endeavor, and having “peeled back the onion” they now are left only with their own opinions and sentimentality as the basis for whatever faith they have left.
Conservative Protestants have been much less consistent in their rationalistic approach. Thus they have preserved among themselves a reverence for the Scriptures and a belief in their inspiration. Nevertheless, their approach (even among the most dogged Fundamentalists) is still essentially rooted in the same spirit of rationalism as the Liberals. A prime example of this is to be found among so-called Dispensational Fundamentalists, who hold to an elaborate theory which posits that at various stages in history God has dealt with man according to different “dispensations,” such as the “Adamic dispensation,” the “Noaic dispensation,” the “Mosaic dispensation,” the “Davidic dispensation,” and so on. One can see that there is a degree of truth in this theory, but beyond these Old Testament dispensations they teach that currently we are under a different “dispensation” than were the Christians of the first century. Though miracles continued through the “New Testament period,” they no longer occur today. This is very interesting, because (in addition to lacking any Scriptural basis) this theory allows these Fundamentalists to affirm the miracles of the Bible, while at the same time allowing them to be Empiricists in their everyday life. Thus, though the discussion of this approach may at first glance seem to be only of academic interest and far removed from the reality of dealing with the average Protestant, in fact, even the average, piously “conservative” Protestant laymen is not unaffected by this sort of rationalism.
The great fallacy in this so called “scientific” approach to the Scriptures lies in the fallacious application of empirical assumptions to the study of history, Scripture, and theology. Empirical methods work reasonably well when they are correctly applied to the natural sciences, but when they are applied where they cannot possibly work, such as in unique moments in history (which cannot be repeated or experimented upon), they cannot produce either consistent or accurate results.12 Scientists have yet to invent a telescope capable of peering into the spirit world, and yet many Protestant scholars assert that in the light of science the idea of the existence of demons or of the Devil has been disproved. Were the Devil to appear before an Empiricist with pitch fork in hand and clad in bright red underwear, it would be explained in some manner that would easily comport to the scientists worldview. Although such Empiricists pride themselves on their “openness”, they are blinded by their assumptions to such an extent that they cannot see anything that does not fit their vision of reality. If the methods of empiricism were consistently applied it would discredit all knowledge (including itself), but empiricism is conveniently permitted to be inconsistent by those who hold to it “because its ruthless mutilation of human experience lends it such a high reputation for scientific severity that its prestige overrides the defectiveness of its own foundations.”13
The connections between the extreme conclusions that modern liberal Protestant scholars have come to, and the more conservative or Fundamentalist Protestants will not seem clear to many — least of all to conservative Fundamentalists! Though these conservatives see themselves as being in almost complete opposition to Protestant liberalism, they nonetheless use essentially the same kinds of methods in their study of the Scriptures as do the liberals, and along with these methodologies come their underlying philosophical assumptions. Thus the difference between the “liberals” and the “conservatives” is not in reality a difference of basic assumptions, but rather a difference in how far they have taken them to their inherent conclusions
If Protestant exegesis were truly “scientific,” as it presents itself to be, its results would show consistency. If its methods were merely unbiased “technologies” (as many view them) then it would not matter who used them, they would “work” the same for everyone. But what do we find when we examine current status of Protestant biblical studies? In the estimation of the “experts” themselves, Protestant biblical scholarship is in a crisis. 14 In fact this crisis is perhaps best illustrated by the admission of a recognized Protestant Old Testament scholar, Gerhad Hasel [in his survey of the history and current status of the discipline of Old Testament theology, Old Testament Theology: Issues in the Current Debate], that during the 1970s five new Old Testament theologies had been produced “but not one agrees in approach and method with any of the others.”15 In fact, it is amazing, considering the self-proclaimed high standard of scholarship in Protestant biblical studies, that you can take your pick of limitless conclusions on almost any issue and find “good scholarship” to back it up. In other words, you can just about come to any conclusion that suits you on a particular day or issue, and you can find a Ph.D. who will advocate it. This is certainly not science in the same sense as mathematics or chemistry! What we are dealing with is a field of learning that presents itself as “objective science,” but which in fact is a pseudo-science, concealing a variety of competing philosophical and theological perspectives. It is pseudoscience because until scientists develop instruments capable of examining and understanding God, objective scientific theology or biblical interpretation is an impossibility. This is not to say that there is nothing that is genuinely scholarly or useful within it; but this is to say that, camouflaged with these legitimate aspects of historical and linguistic learning, and hidden by the fog machines and mirrors of pseudo-science, we discover in reality that Protestant methods of biblical interpretation are both the product and the servant of Protestant theological and philosophical assumptions.16
With subjectivity that surpasses the most speculative Freudian psychoanalysts, Protestant scholars selectively choose the “facts” and “evidence” that suits their agenda and then proceed, with their conclusions essentially predetermined by their basic assumptions, to apply their methods to the Holy Scriptures. All the while, the Protestant scholars, both “liberal” and “conservative,” describe themselves as dispassionate “scientists.”17 And since modern universities do not give out Ph.D.s to those who merely pass on the unadulterated Truth, these scholars seek to out-do each other by coming up with new “creative” theories. This is the very essence of heresy: novelty, arrogant personal opinion, and self-deception.
Our Fourth and final part tomorrow!
Read Part 1 Here
Posted on November 20, 2011, in Christianity, Early Church History, Theology, Worship and tagged christianity, early church history, Eastern Orthodox, Gospel, John Piper, Luther, Protestant, reformed, religion, Sola Scriptura. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.
I’ve spent much time (well, considering what’s available) researching this branch of Christianity, and I’m shocked to have never heard of and have no knowledge of their existence. I’m thinking I probably have heard of them, and just associated them with the Catholic church, but obviously, they would take much issue with that. It’s interesting that they show compassion to Luther’s work, but believe he erred by not joining their ranks. After Luther, they see nothing profitable in the protestant reformation.
I’ve purchased “The Orthodox Church” by John Anthony McGuckin, and have begun reading, but it is lengthy.
This article brings to light some gripping truths and probably sheds light where most of us wish it were not shed.
Just one point to leave for pondering… The Orthodox Church places great emphasis on ‘the church.’ Look at the attitude toward Christianity and the importance of the local assembly in the western part of our world (where protestants are a majority). Could it be, that we’ve really messed something up with our wonderful protestantism? Hardly anyone sees corporate worship as urgent, as necessary for a faithful life in Christ.
I suffer from the exact same shock. I have been reading a book by Daniel Clendenin called “Eastern Orthodox Christianity: A Western Perpective” and have leaqrned a lot about the EOC. I would recommend the book for any protestant. It is a very deep look into the EO church by a protestant. It seems fair and balanced. I have learned a lot about them. I agree with your observation about “the church” I think we have messed it up!
Thanks Gentlemen for the reading recommendations. I will join you in studying the EOC further.
Very much of what the writer says I feel rings true but it does seem like he somewhat marginalizes the Scripture itself without meaning to. Again I would state that the Bible says what it means and means what it says. Very, very little of Biblical truth is open to interpretation. We “uneducated” have the right idea by taking Scripture literally and allowing it to interpret itself whenever possible. While our safeguard against error, heresy, and apostacy is the tradition of the Apostles.
As a cop I can attest that I have stopped people who emphatically maintained that the stop sign they ran didn’t really mean stop. But did that make the stop sign open to interpretation? Of course not. The same can be said of Scripture. Many of the most ardently held doctrines simply have no Biblical basis. Whenever Scripture has to be “explained” in order to promote a belief, said belief is likely wrong. ie…unconditional eternal security, etc…
Where I think he hits it right on the head and where human twisting of Scripture is eliminated, is when what is taught and believed is held up against the tradition of the Apostles. We need to ask; what did they believe? What did they practice? How did they handle similar situations? How did they conduct a worship service?
Some things that I find interestingly absent from the early church are things like: altar calls, sinners prayers, and “praying through”. If you are not familiar, that is a Pentecostal phrase.
Jim, you are my hero. Thanks again for this!!!
Thanks for the kind words and for sharing your thoughts on all four of these articles. I just finished reading “Eastern Orthodox Christianity: A Western Perpective” and it was a great read. I learned an awful lot and was very, very challenged. I would recommned this book to anyone. In fact, it was a very easy book to read and I couldn’ put it down. It has a great critique of some of the problems most of us would have with some of the worship practices of the EA church, but does so in a way that promotes a healthy view of them.