Now that MB’s constructive argument has been made, we are able to reduce the scope of the debate significantly. MB’s argument had two main parts. The first part was what we would call in debate terms a “counterplan” in which he presents what he feels is an alternative to the Reformed position, and the second part addresses a few objections to the Reformed position. Once you have read the response to the counterplan, I hope you will recognize that there has been no significant case made for any other Word of God than Scriptures. Thus, I trust that the reader will rightly conclude that the burden of proof and persuasion has not moved, but remains on the advocate of this alleged further source of authority.
MB’s Counterplan: Papist Tradition
MB’s counterplan is really the primary way that he attempts to refute the Reformed position, and occupies about 75% of his constructive essay. There are several fundamental problems with the counterplan.
MB’s View of Tradition is seemingly not Fully Consistent with the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC).
Critical planks upon which the counterplan is built are not well accepted, even among papists. For example, MB claims “Many seem to understand Tradition as being an addition to the Sacred Scriptures. This however is an incorrect, or incomplete way to view it.” In contrast, however, CCC 78 states: “This living transmission, accomplished in the Holy Spirit, is called Tradition, since it is distinct from Sacred Scripture, though closely connected to it.” Likewise CCC 82 states: “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."”
Thus, while MB may have an opinion about the relation between Scripture and Tradition, the official teachings of the papists are somewhat at variance with at least some of MB’s comments. That is to say, “Scripture” and “Tradition” are distinct and Tradition is additional to Scripture, such that the papists do not derive their certainty about all revealed truths from the Scriptures alone but from Scriptures Plus.
MB’s Tradition is Warrantless
Oral Torah Analogy
No good reason has been given for this distinct source of revelation. MB provides an analogy to the Rabbinical traditions, but acknowledges that the Rabbis were not inspired, but were fallible men. Thus, the Rabbinical traditions fail MB. If fallible traditions were ok for the Jews, the analogy would suggest that they would also be ok for the nations.
Further, MB cites Basil who makes mention of traditions handed from the Apostles via mysteries. While a more thorough discussion of what Basil meant by “mysteries” would be interesting, ultimately what Basil is referencing is not helpful to MB’s counterplan, because Basil is not speaking of an interpretative authority (the same problem arises when MB tries to rely on Chrysostom and Saint Epiphanius).
You see, we can divide tradition into at least two categories: IAT – Interpretative Authority Tradition (by which councils and popes are supposedly endued with authority to speak dogmas that are to be accepted by all Christians) and HMDT – Hand-Me-Down Tradition (by which unwritten traditional teachings of the apostles are carried down to us). HMDT is more easily testable historically. If someone claims there was an unwritten tradition of doctrine “X,” we can make an historical investigation to see if Christians or their critics throughout history ever mentioned holding such doctrines. We can test the HMDT of which Basil, Chrysostom, and Epihpanius seem to be speaking in the citations MB provided.
That’s not what MB is claiming, though – as demonstrated by his comment that “Tradition is not just quoting Church Fathers. Yes, they can provide evidence of what the Church believed throughout history, but we cannot rely on these writings, and Scripture alone either.” MB is claiming something for his position: something that gives exclusivity of interpretation to the
In short, MB is claiming that his church has the ability to provide teachings in the form of IAT that are of the same authority as the Scriptures, because both are the “Word of God,” and the “Gospel.” There is, however, no reason to accept these claims. Unlike the prophets and apostles who had revelation from God, the popes and councils do not perform signs and wonders testifying to their gifts. When is the last time a pope raised a man from the dead? When is the last time the shadow of a council caused cripples to walk? God gave the prophets and apostles signs that confirmed their prophetic gifts. The church of Rome does not have such tokens.
New Testament Citation
There is an additional problem with MB’s contention, stemming from an attempt to bolster his position by appeal to the New Testament. MB claims that “In reading the NT we must understand [the] NT does not understand itself to be Scripture in its own text. In other words, when the term Scripture is used in the NT it is always referring to the OT….” In fact, 2 Peter 3:16 describes Paul’s epistles as Scripture, stating – after discussing Paul’s epistles – “as … also the other scriptures ….” Furthermore, the Revelation of John the Apostle is evidently self-aware as a book of prophecy (see, for example, Revelation 22:18-19). Likewise, Paul in I Corinthians 14:37 provides as a litmus test for anyone who claims to have the Holy Spirit that they recognize that his writings are the “commandment of the Lord.” Paul, Peter, and John were not awaiting recognition by a future council of their inspiration: they were writing divinely inspired Scripture by the authority of the Holy Spirit.
Another problem stems from dramatic claims that MB is forced to make in order justify a second source of divine revelation. For example, MB claims, “As we see in Rom 10:14-15, the Word is heard, preached, and not read.” The cited passage, though, does not say “not read.” In fact, in the immediate context Paul himself (in the writing he is providing) cites to earlier writings: “as it is written” verse 15. He even cites to Isaiah’s writing using spoken terminology, “For Esaias saith, Lord, who hath believed our report?” Thus, we can see that Paul does not mean to distinguish between the Gospel message as being somehow spoken as distinct from written.
Indeed, such a distinction is absurd. Human communication is verbal: it’s made up of words. Words can be written down. While written words may not have the same emotional impact as the same words spoken dramatically, the same information is conveyed.
Another such extreme claim is the claim that “the Word is not a written Word, but a living one that cannot be contained in a written source.” To say that the Word of God cannot be contained in a written source is simply to limit God’s ability to communicate himself. While such a claim has a patina of piousness, it is at its core a denial of God’s omnipotence: a claim that Scriptures cannot possibly be sufficient. Yet Scriptures are sufficient, as they claim, and as already set forth in my constructive essay.
MB makes reference to the issue of contraception, something that is a hot topic in papist circles. The problem with this argument is that one has to first assume that the papist position (contraception is evil) in order to see acceptance of contraception by non-Catholics as a problem. Furthermore, the strength of the papist argument against contraception is very tenuous from Scripture. That’s why, perhaps, one does not see MB providing a Scriptural case. Instead, the prohibition is an unscriptural prohibition intended to bind men’s consciences, but lacking authority to do so.
Ultimately there is enormous irony in selection of that topic. Papist European nations, such as Spain and Italy have an enormous problem with non-reproduction. Their national birth rates are quite low, which is strong evidence that they are employing contraceptives and/or abortives. That’s not to say that the less-papist nations are better: simply that this supposed tradition actually provides no significant benefit to those associated with the church that claims it is from God.
Non-Acceptance of IAT by Church Fathers
An even greater problem for MB is history. Although there may be a handful of patristic quotations that suggest a belief by some church fathers in HMDT, there are at least an equal number that suggest a lack of belief by the church fathers (including some of the same ones) in IAT – the kind of tradition that MB needs, or who would simply not accept MB’s dramatic claims regarding the non-written nature of the Gospel, or the non-verbalizable characteristics thereof.
For example, Turtullian thought that the Lord’s Prayer could epitomize the entire Gospel: “… in the Prayer [i.e. the Lord’s Prayer] is comprised an epitome of the whole Gospel.” (The Writings of Quintus Sept. Flor. Tertullianus, Volume 1, Section VII, Chapter 1, p. 180, Roberts et al. ed.)
Likewise, Irenaeus essentially equates the Gospels and the Gospel in responding to Marcion (at the same time recognizing the true number of inspired gospels, before any “council” or “pope” had spoken on the matter):
9. These things being so, all who destroy the form of the Gospel are vain, unlearned, and also audacious; those, [I mean,] who represent the aspects of the Gospel as being either more in number than as aforesaid, or, on the other hand, fewer. The former class [do so], that they may seem to have discovered more than is of the truth; the latter, that they may set the dispensations of God aside. For Marcion, rejecting the entire Gospel, yea rather, cutting himself off from the Gospel, boasts that he has part in the [blessings of] the Gospel. (Irenaeus Against Heresies, Book III, Chapter XI, Section 9)
Moreover, Basil (cited by MB) has this to say about following tradition:
What our fathers said, the same say we, that the glory of the Father and of the Son is common; wherefore we offer the doxology to the Father with the Son. But we do not rest only on the fact that such is the tradition of the Fathers; for they too followed the sense of Scripture, and started from the evidence which, a few sentences back, I deduced from Scripture and laid before you. (Basil, Of the Spirit, Chapter VII)
Again, Basil claims that Scripture alone (i.e. without IAT) is sufficient for one who has the Holy Spirit:
Enjoying as you do the consolation of the Holy Scriptures, you stand in need neither of my assistance nor of that of anybody else to help you to comprehend your duty. You have the all-sufficient counsel and guidance of the Holy Spirit to lead you to what is right. (Letter 283 - To a Widow (Basil))
Likewise Ambrose sets up Scripture as the rule of faith and life:
102. Men of the world give many further rules about the way to speak, which I think we may pass over; as, for instance, the way jesting should be conducted. For though at times jests may be proper and pleasant, yet they are unsuited to the clerical life. For how can we adopt those things which we do not find in the holy Scriptures? (On the duties of the Clergy, Chapter 23)
And Ambrose equates the Gospel and the Scriptures:
131. But that very thing is excluded with us which philosophers think to be the office of justice. For they say that the first expression of justice is, to hurt no one, except when driven to it by wrongs received. This is put aside by the authority of the Gospel. For the Scripture wills that the Spirit of the Son of Man should be in us, Who came to give grace, not to bring harm. (On the duties of the Clergy, Chapter 28)
Consider also Clement of Alexandria’s words about the role of Scripture:
“But those who are ready to toil in the most excellent pursuits, will not desist from the search after truth, till they get the demonstration from the Scriptures themselves” (Mis. B. vii. c. 16).
Finally, consider the declaration of Cyril of Jerusalem (as reported by J.N.D. Kelly in “Early Christian Doctrines”): “with regard to the divine and saving mysteries of faith no doctrine, however trivial, may be taught without the backing of the divine Scriptures .. For our saving faith derives is force, not from capricious reasonings, but from what may be proved out of the Bible.” (Cat. 4, 17.)
Further Problems for “Tradition”
We frequently hear questions about canon problems with Sola Scriptura. Where is the canon of tradition? When a large council met several decades before what is referred to as the Seventh Ecumenical Council (SEC), it issued decrees that would seem to be the decrees of “the church.” Nevertheless, the SEC reversed the previous council’s decisions.
Likewise, there have been at many times disputes over who is the pope. While this was less significant before the doctrine of papal infallibility was invented, it is significant both then and now. If the teachings of the pope are part of the canon of Tradition, how is one to know what teachings are in and which are out, particularly when the papal throne is contested.
Let’s focus on the Bible itself. It’s seemingly claimed by MB that the only way to resolve the canon is by appeal to “tradition.” But can tradition provide us the canon? Tradition is mixed on the issue of the canon, if we mean by tradition the historical record. Even with respect to the issue of interpretative tradition, there is still dispute today over whether the Council of Trent closed the canon or passed over certain potentially authoritative works in silence.
But we can dig further. For you see, the traditions of Rome have been unable not only to maintain the correct canon: they have been unable to maintain the correct text of the books of the canon. We must grant, of course, that for the most part the text has been preserved. Nevertheless, it has been preserved fallibly. We see implicit acknowledgment of these defects in the recently promulgated Nova Vulgata, which differs at many places from Vulgate editions of the Bible promulgated by previous popes.
In short, there’s no reason to think that “tradition” is an infallible source of authority. On the other hand, Scripture is an infallible source of authority, something that even the papists must concede, as evidenced in MB’s essay with various quotations from popes and the CCC.
Response to Objections
Having addressed the counterplan, which is at variance with reason, Scripture, and many of the sayings of the fathers, (and which also has problems standing on its own) let us turn to the criticism MB provides of Sola Scriptura. A first criticism of the Sola Scriptura position that MB provides is to question the issue of whether they can be known to be the complete revelation of God.
Completeness of Scripture
MB admits that the Scriptures are revelation from God, but questions how we may know that they are, in essence, complete. The answer is already given, to a degree, in the constructive essay. The answer is process of elimination. We know that the Scriptures are God’s word, and we have no reason to believe that the papist’s traditions are God’s word.
Ad Hominem Question of Authority
Next, MB criticizes the confession with an ad hominem. He claims it holds no authority from God to make this factual claim. First of all, we must provide turnabout to demonstrate the absurdity of this criticism. One wonders whether MB himself has the authority to make that factual claim. Is MB one of the prophets? Certainly not – he doesn’t even claim to be. But if MB can make that factual claim without special authority, why cannot the confession make the claim without special authority? Thus, the ad hominem collapses. Second, it is not the confession speaking for itself, the confession is the testimony of the Reformed churches in the Scottish tradition. It is a summary of shared beliefs, not a document carrying or asserting intrinsic authority. Finally, we (the Reformed) do have the authority to make such a claim. Scripture gives us the authority in, for example, I John 4:1 (“…believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God…”).
MB claims that providing an interpretation of Scripture or an identification of Scripture is a usurpation of the authority of Scripture when the Reformed do it, but not when the papists do it. The double standard could not be plainer. MB attempts to escape from this obvious fallacy by claiming that he has authority given by Jesus “through His apostles guided by the Holy Spirit.” That is our claim as well, though. We have been given authority by Jesus to believe the Word of God to be such and not the word of men (1 Thessalonians 2:13). Furthermore, we have the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1:13).
Straw Man – Scriptures the “Only Authority”
MB’s assertion that “one cannot say that Scriptures are the only authority,” employs the straw man fallacy. It is not our position that Scriptures are the only authority: but that they are the rule of faith: that they are the Word of God. Our interpretations are fallible, but Scripture is infallible. That does not mean that the elders do not have authority (or even that individual believers do not have authority of some kind), it just means that they have subservient authority. In scholastic terms the other authorities are derivative authorities.
MB claims that canon is a problem negatively as to the Apocrypha. MB notes correctly that we can “find many different opinions throughout history” regarding the canonical status of the Apocrypha, then goes on to argue that there is evidence that “most Christians” accepted them for the first 300-400 years, and finally asks us to demonstrate that they were “all” wrong.
Of course, the answer to the question is that the WCF explains the matter. The Apocrypha are not part of Scripture, because they are not inspired. How we determine whether something is inspired is ultimately a matter of the Holy Spirit persuading us to accept His word by faith. Nevertheless, there are various reasons to reject the Apocrypha.
First, the Apocrypha were not written in Hebrew. From a textual critical standpoint, this helps to establish that they are not original, with respect – for example – to those portions of the Apocrypha that claim to be the work of ancient Jews or parts of other books (books that are otherwise in Hebrew/Chaldee).
Second, the Apocrypha were not part of the Hebrew canon. This is implicitly recognized even by the scholar MB cites in the portion that MB cites, where Bruce Metzger distinguishes the Greek and Latin fathers who did not know Hebrew from those who did. As Jerome testified when he was presented with the issue, the Apocrypha were no part of the Hebrew canon. We can also find confirmation elsewhere among the ancients.
Third, and connected with the second part, Jesus implicitly endorsed the Hebrew canon in his catch-all condemnation of the Pharisees, in which he stated: Matthew 23:35 That upon you may come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel unto the blood of Zacharias son of Barachias, whom ye slew between the temple and the altar. (Luke 11:51 From the blood of Abel unto the blood of Zacharias, which perished between the altar and the temple: verily I say unto you, It shall be required of this generation.) By this Jesus begins with the first murder of a godly man in the Tanakh (the Hebrew Scriptures) and ends with the last murder of a godly man in the Tanakh (2 Chronicles 24:20-21 20And the Spirit of God came upon Zechariah the son of Jehoiada the priest, which stood above the people, and said unto them, Thus saith God, Why transgress ye the commandments of the LORD, that ye cannot prosper? because ye have forsaken the LORD, he hath also forsaken you. 21And they conspired against him, and stoned him with stones at the commandment of the king in the court of the house of the LORD.)
The interesting issue of why Zechariah is called both "the son of Jehoiada the priest" and "the son of Barachias" is an interesting discussion, upon which further presentation could be had, if there is any doubt that the two are not the same.
The interesting issue of why Zechariah is called both "the son of Jehoiada the priest" and "the son of Barachias" is an interesting discussion, upon which further presentation could be had, if there is any doubt that the two are not the same.
The bulk of MB’s essay is an exposition of his view of
First, the issue of the Holy Spirit. There is a dominant theme in the essay that “the Church” is guided by the Holy Spirit, with the apparent argument being that because it is guided by the Holy Spirit its teachings are also part of the whole Word of God. There are a number of rebuttals that present themselves.
Believers have the Holy Spirit. Scripture clearly indicates this, and it does not seem likely that MB would deny it. Nevertheless, believers are not infallible by virtue of having the HS. Not everyone who has the Holy Spirit is consequently infallible in view of having the Holy Spirit.
Furthermore, a church has the Holy Spirit not as church but by virtue of being composed (mostly) of believers who have the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that the papist assembly is such a church. The papists’ refusal even to consider reforming their doctrines to the Word of God weighs against a conclusion that they have the Spirit that inspired the Scripture.
A second issue is Tradition – particularly tradition of the IAT sort. While tradition may be helpful (either in reality or in the abstract), that does not imply as a matter of logic that extra-Scriptural tradition, and especially infallible extra-Scriptural tradition, is necessary. MB’s appeal to Jewish tradition falls short because he admits that it was fallible. There’s no particular reason to think that Christian tradition would not be similarly fallible. Indeed, Christ not only corrected some of the traditions of the Jews, he heavily criticized them for the imposition of their traditions, which he said made void the word of God.
A third issue is papal infallibility. Is this tradition secret or not? There’s no real evidence for such a doctrine for over a thousand years – arguably there’s no significant evidence of such a doctrine until immediately preceding its dogmatic declaration at Vatican I. MB claims that the traditions of his church are not like those of the Gnostics, but for papal infallibility to be something handed down from the apostles, it would have had to have been handed down in secret for many of those years.
With all the foregoing, let us not be afraid to heed the words of Gregory of Nyssa who said:
They allege that while we confess three Persons we say that there is one goodness, and one power, and one Godhead. And in this assertion they do not go beyond the truth; for we do say so. But the ground of their complaint is that their custom does not admit this, and Scripture does not support it. What then is our reply? We do not think that it is right to make their prevailing custom the law and rule of sound doctrine. For if custom is to avail for proof of soundness, we too, surely, may advance our prevailing custom; and if they reject this, we are surely not bound to follow theirs. Let the inspired Scripture, then, be our umpire, and the vote of truth will surely be given to those whose dogmas are found to agree with the Divine words. (On the Holy Trinity)
The Holy Scriptures are the sufficient, inspired, Word of God: let us heed them without adding to them the traditions of men.
As it is written:
Deuteronomy 4:2 Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish ought from it, that ye may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you.
Deuteronomy 12:32 What thing soever I command you, observe to do it: thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it.
Let those be our guiding principles. Since the traditions of the papists are not and cannot be shown to be the Word of God, or the commandments of the LORD our God, let us not contradict Scripture by adding them to Scripture, as though they were also God’s word.
Much to my chagrin, I seem to have conflated Wycliffe and Tyndale in my opening essay. I apologize to the readers for this mistake on my part, which demonstrates (inadvertently) the fallibility of men.
I wrote: "The first English Bible was not published until the time of Wycliffe in the 14th century. Wycliffe received martyrdom for his troubles, and the papist authorities sought to destroy the copies of the Bible that he printed."
The Wycliffe Bible was hunted by authorities, but while the papists dug up Wycliffe's bones and burnt them, it was technically Wycliffe's assistant Purvey (who completed the work) who ended up being martyred, Wycliffe himself dying apparently of natural causes (1384). Printed is also not be quite the right word. For, you see, the Wycliffe Bible had to be published by handwriting. Printed suggests mechanical reproduction.
Tyndale, on the other hand, provided the first truly printed English Bible. He was martyred in 1536 by strangling. His body was then, like that of Wycliffe his predecessor, burnt (in the case of Tyndale it was burnt at a stake).
The followers of Wycliffe, known as the Lollards, are a fascinating case study for those who vainly imagine that reformation of the Western church started in 1517 with a German monk complaining about abuse of indulgences.
Nevertheless, I somehow managed mentally to conflate Wycliffe and Tyndale in my opening post, much to my shame, and so I hereby publicly retract that erroneous passage in favor of:
"The first English Bible was not published until the time of Wycliffe/Purvey in the 14th century.
WycliffePurvey received martyrdom for his troubles, and the papist authorities sought to destroy the copies of the Bible that he printedpublished."