Tuesday, October 9, 2007

You Cannot Use What You Do Not Have

After a brief introduction portion, “Orthodox” asked: “Having acknowledged that the earliest church never practiced sola scriptura...”

“Orthodox” seems to have gotten a little ahead of himself here. Although oral tradition was used in the earliest church (out of necessity), Scripture still held the highest place.

Jesus himself explains that:

John 5:47 But if ye believe not his writings, how shall ye believe my words?

And recall Luke’s commendation of the Bereans:

Acts 17:11 These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so.

Even though there were apostles and prophets to provide revelation directly from God, the first place was given to the written word. The fact that oral tradition existed and was used does not mean that tradition had the same doctrinal authority as Scripture, note that it meant or was used the way the Greek, Russian, etc. etc. Orthodox Churches use it.

There’s a rather obvious reason why oral tradition could not have the same authority as Scripture. Scripture is a written, unchanging record of inspiration: its writing was accompanied by miracles and signs from God that testified as to its authenticity.

Furthermore, “tradition” did not have the sense assigned to it by “Orthodox,” namely “an organic set of beliefs held by the body” (see section of entitled “The Early Church wasn’t instructed to abandon tradition”) and “consensus” (see section entitled “Consensus [vs.] Individualism …”) Instead, it took the form of Jesus’ words (before they were written into the gospels) and the Apostles’ and prophets’ words. These were not obtained by consensus, nor were they dynamic/organic. Likewise, there is no reason to suppose that "tradition" even as used by Chrysostom had the meaning of "tradition" used by "Orthodox," but perhaps that could be delved into more deeply elsewhere.

“Orthodox” continued: “(a) who gave the order for the church to change from tradition to sola scriptura?”

As can be deduced from the comments above, no switch was necessary. Scripture always held the highest place. Furthermore, one simply cannot use what one does not have. The apostles and prophets of the time of inscripturation died off. The eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life themselves passed on.

Furthermore, alleged oral tradition was lost. For example, Papias apparently wrote down alleged oral traditions, but his writings have been lost, and the little that other historians saw fit to reproduce amounts to matters of no doctrinal moment (such as the martyrdom of some of the apostles, or the name of the man who penned the gospel of Mark). Additionally, some of the matters ascribed to Papias are of questionable authenticity, as also are some of the matters ascribed to Clement of Rome. In short, no one bothered to transcribe virtually any of this “oral tradition” into writing, and now that all the eyewitnesses are dead, we have lost access. There is no Christian Hadith.

“Orthodox” continued: “(b) where did they get the authority to do so?”

Obviously, this part of the question depends from the faulty premise in (a). Scriptures carry the authority of the Holy Spirit who inspired them. With the apostles and other prophets gone, there was no one who had similar authority. God did not appear to the early church fathers (or other early churchmen) in visions bringing new further doctrinal revelations.

“Orthodox” continued: “(c) Why do the Apostolic Fathers never mention the Big Cutover?”

This question again depends on faulty premises. The question asks for an explanation of silence. That explanation is multi-faceted.

There’s no need to tell people not to use something they don’t have. Perhaps we don’t see discussion of the switch from “oral tradition” to Sola Scriptura because it was blindingly obvious that all the eyewitnesses, prophets, and apostles had perished.

Furthermore, we see evidence of the fathers relying on Scripture for doctrinal authority (for the sort of issues identified in the WCF) from the earliest writings (whether real or pseudonymous). But to what age must one go to find any record of churchmen relying on “oral tradition” for doctrine?

Finally, we see the practical supremacy of Scripture evidenced in Irenaeus’ interaction with early heretics. Irenaeus writes: “When, however, they are confuted from the Scriptures, they turn round and accuse these same Scriptures, as if they were not correct, nor of authority, and [assert] that they are ambiguous, and that the truth cannot be extracted from them by those who are ignorant of tradition.” Irenaeus, “Against Heresies,” Book III, Chapter 2, paragraph 1. How remarkably similar to the heretics’ argument is the argument against Sola Scriptura? Doesn’t it look like the opening argument, which states: “Tradition and scripture alone are two approaches that seek clarity in one truth. But in reality, sola scripture has led to either just a different set of authoritative traditions, or else a continuing and uncontrollable expansion of individual interpretations. Lacking a mechanism for removing wrong interpretations from the pool, confusion is ever expanding.”

After all, that is the question: are Scriptures correct, of authority, and sufficiently unambiguous that their truth can be extracted by those who are ignorant of “tradition.” On this matter, “Orthodox’s” position is similar to the last of the fallback positions of the heretics. The idea that Scriptures are ambiguous and that truth cannot be extracted from them by those who are ignorant of tradition is central to the argument of “Orthodox.”

“Orthodox” continued: “(d) where can we find evidence the order was given?”

See above, no order was needed, but if an “order” was given, it was not recorded, or is recorded in the terms provided at the conclusion of the Apocalypse (which we need not decide here). In any event, the early church fathers did not rely on “oral tradition” to an measurable degree in establishing their doctrines: but constantly relied on Scripture for that purpose.

“Orthodox” continued: “(e) why did the early church never end up cutting over to the new regime?”

This question assumes facts that have not been established. As noted above, we don’t see the first generations of writers appealing to oral tradition on doctrinal matters: we consistently see them appealing to scripture.

“Orthodox” continued: “(f) Whose fault was it the early church "forgot" to change to sola scriptura?”

This question is similar to the last question, in that it assumes without evidence that the early church did not practice sola scriptura. Of course, men err – and any failure to do what is right could be attributed to human error. Nevertheless, there is no evidence to indicate that the early church elevated oral tradition to the level of Scripture, and abundant evidence that the early church constantly relied on Scripture for doctrinal teaching.

“Orthodox” continued: “(g) What year should the cutover have happened, and how would it have proceeded if it hadn't failed?”

This question is similar to the last two questions, assuming facts that have not been established. There’s no need to address this further, as the answers to (e) and (f) should suffice.

To God be the glory,


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