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Sources of revelation

Last week, we chatted about Christian parenting pitfalls. Our guest, Braden Ritchie, walked us through concerns for a Christian parent with respect to smartphones, schools and sleepovers. Find the episode here!


Of course, the specific Christian tradition one adheres to will determine much when it comes to parenting concerns. Which leads me to the topic of today’s post...


There are many fundamental disconnects and points of contention between us Catholic Christians and our separated brethren who have broken from the Church (especially those who would adhere to some form of Protestant Christianity). This has profound implications for how we live a Christian life. Today I want to highlight one of these significant disconnects between Catholics and our breakaway brothers (as I like to call them 😊): Catholicism’s threefold source of revelation (i.e., Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium) versus Protestantism’s declaration of sola Scriptura (i.e., Scripture alone). For those who are unfamiliar with the word, Magisterium simply refers to the official teaching authority of the (Catholic) Church, constituted by bishops in union with the pope.


As the son of an evangelical Baptist pastor who was raised in a sola Scriptura-based tradition and then later converted to Anglicanism (i.e., a prima Scriptura-based tradition) before finding my way to Catholicism, I am in a unique position to tackle this topic. I can see and appreciate all perspectives. But, of course, they cannot all be true. They are mutually exclusive and thus, ultimately, the Christian must choose one.


I first consider Catholicism’s threefold source of revelation, then explore Protestantism’s adherence to sola Scriptura, and finally discusses the problems Protestants face resulting from sola Scriptura’s theologically significant issues.


Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium

To begin, an outline of the Catholic view on revelation is necessary. Isaac Boaheng explains how in the “Catholic faith there are three equal sources of authority, namely, the magisterium, Scripture, and tradition,”[1] while Daniel J. Treier notes that Catholicism “respects Scripture as the ultimate written source of God’s Revelation… but grants to Tradition (via [magisterial teaching]) a decisive role in its interpretation.”[2] Scripture, for Catholics, is foundational and Thomas Joseph White relays the Catholic Church’s position: inspired by God in its entirety, Scripture infallibly teaches all He wished revealed for our salvation.[3] If Scripture’s centrality to Catholics has ever been in question, Francis J. Moloney notes “[t]he fathers of Vatican II asked that [it] be returned to the centre of the life and practice of the Catholic Church”[4] and Avery Dulles asserts that while there are two sources for ascertaining doctrine, “in order of being… there is only one source, the Word of God.”[5]


Nonetheless, and as Aidan Nichols notes, the “Catholic Church does not regard revelation as adequately presented in Scripture alone….”[6] Dei Verbum declares:


“For Sacred Scripture is the word of God inasmuch as it is consigned to writing under the inspiration of the divine Spirit, while sacred tradition takes the word of God entrusted by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit to the Apostles, and hands it on to their successors… so that led by the light of the Spirit… they may in proclaiming it preserve this word of God faithfully, explain it, and make it more widely known…. [B]oth sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty….”[7]


Yves Congar, in discussing Catholic teachings, notes how “[t]heir biblical foundations are very solid but are revealed only in tradition.”[8] The rationale for this emphasis on Tradition is manifold but includes the simple reality, as highlighted by Nichols, that the New Testament itself contains no creeds and thus evidences the fact that “the Christian religion [is] in the process of becoming rather than in the act of fully being.”[9] In other words, the Christian religion existed after Jesus’s time thanks to Tradition. Nichols asserts this when he reminds us that “[i]n the age of the Fathers, the unity of Scripture and Tradition is largely taken for granted….”[10] This fact can easily be forgotten two millennia removed from the apostolic age.


And, simply stated, at no point did Jesus Himself ever tell anyone to read about Him or His teachings, nor is there any indication that He could even write Himself. What we know of Jesus now was written about Him after He ascended into Heaven, and thus only existed between the time of the events and their being put into writing thanks to oral tradition.


Interestingly and unsurprisingly, Tradition’s importance has ample support in Scripture itself. For example, Saint Paul commands the Thessalonians to “stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that [they] were taught”[11] and praises the Corinthians because they “hold fast to the traditions….”[12]. Nichols explains that “Paul appeals to tradition… as an authority understood and accepted by his readers”[13] and asserts:


“For the early Paul, tradition is revelation itself; for Luke, it is the oral witness of the apostles. For the later Paul of the Pastoral Letters…, tradition is both of these things at once: it is the very faith of the community, what is believed about the new relationship with God in Christ, as witnessed by the apostles and guarded by their successors. In a word, then, the tradition is the Christian religion itself, a reality larger than that of the scriptural text.”[14]


Thus, no more need be said about tradition’s revelatory significance within the Catholic faith.


The discussion necessarily turns then to the Magisterium, which literally means the authority of the master or teacher.[15] Reinhold Bernhardt explains the Magisterium, or the Catholic Church’s authority to authentically interpret the Word of God, and its role both historically and since the Second Vatican Council of 1962-1965 as follows:


“[T]he authority of scripture cannot be separated from the authority of the church in which the Bible originated, according to Catholic understanding…. The Magisterium guarantees an authentic interpretation. Outside the church the Bible cannot be rightly understood. The Second Vatican Council modified that position slightly. It declared that the Magisterium is subordinate to Scripture inasmuch as that which it has to teach is that which it has received from Scripture.”[16]


Thus, while the Second Vatican Council reiterated that “the task of authentically interpreting the word of God… has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church” it conceded that the Magisterium “is not above the word of God, but serves it….”[17]


In sum, Catholicism posits a twofold source of divine truth and claims the authority to explain that truth normatively rests with the Magisterium.[18] Muhammad Modassir Ali states:


“while Scripture and Tradition are distinctive entities, they overlap. The Holy Spirit is equally active in both… because, in reality, they constitute one divine source of revelation. The magisterium… has its own distinctive role to play. In some ways, the magisterium stands apart from the Tradition… yet it is also an essential part of [it].”[19]


This is corroborated and further emphasized by White, who summarily reiterates the Catholic position on the threefold source of revelation thus:


“The texts of scripture can be rearranged just like the tiles in a visual mosaic of Christ, so that they no longer present an image of the God-man, but an image of a dog. What prevents this misuse of the apostolic teaching is the living authority of the successors of the apostles…. But if scripture really is the word of God, why should the Church stand in need of tradition and a visible teaching authority? The reason is that scripture is an inspired book but is still “merely” a book.”[20] 


In short, revelation within the Catholic faith, per Moloney, depends upon “the mutuality of Scripture, tradition, and the magisterium”[21] and, per Joel C. Elowsky, “all three are so linked together that none of them, not even Scripture, can stand on its own as an authority.”[22]


Scripture Alone

Now, to turn to Protestantism’s position on revelation. According to Jan-Olav Henriksen, sola Scriptura maintains that “nothing but what the Scriptures witness about the gospel of Christ is the basis for justification and salvation….”[23] Sola Scriptura aims to eliminate anything beyond Scripture as an authority[24] and its defining characteristic for Protestants is, per W. Robert Godfrey, “that all things necessary for salvation and concerning faith and life are taught in the Bible clearly enough for the ordinary believer….”[25] This assertion goes back to Martin Luther who, as Diane Jacobson reports, claimed Scripture alone was sufficient to make someone a Christian.[26] Donald G. Bloesch notes that “[a]gainst the prevailing view… that church tradition is on a par with Scripture, the Reformers resolutely maintained that there is only one source of revelation, Holy Scripture.”[27]


It is important not to oversimplify, however. Protestantism includes seemingly countless separate churches and some, including Anglicanism and its 98,000,000 adherents,[28] eschew classification. As Anglican priest Mark Haverland explains:


“On the one hand, we [Anglicans] find ourselves in disagreement with the Roman Catholic centralization of authority in the magisterium of the Pope…. On the other hand, we find ourselves set over against the Protestants in our affirmation of the centrality of liturgy, the authority of tradition… and the seven sacraments.”[29]      


Indeed, Allen Verhey remarks that “Protestantism is characterized by diversity.”[30] Even so, the writer’s experience mimics that of Elowsky, who admits of his Protestant upbringing:


“Tradition was viewed by me and other Lutherans and Evangelicals as a “succession of mistakes upon mistakes” that were perpetrated shortly after the time of the apostolic age by the church fathers… through the next fourteen centuries until Luther and the Reformation arrived on the scene to set things right….”[31]


Alec Ryrie asserts Protestantism was “a fundamentalist movement; it only accepted a single authority, Holy Scripture”[32] and Congar claims the “Protestant rejects what he does not find formally in the Scriptures….”[33] The Protestant view is best summarized by Robert M. Grant:


“Scripture for the reformers is not one of several pillars which uphold the house of faith; it is the sole foundation. And the reformers were willing to insist on their understanding of the Bible no matter what previous exegetes might have said, no matter whether they contradicted even the decisions of councils. The church was not to be the arbiter of the meaning of scripture, for scripture, the word of God, was the church’s judge. Naturally the reformers insisted on an historical, literal, grammatical understanding of the Bible as they came to believe that a new authority must be set up to oppose the authority of the church.”[34]


Sola Scriptura’s Issues, Their Theological Significance and the Material Problems

With an understanding of both the Catholic and the Protestant perspective, I now show how sola Scriptura presents material problems for Protestant Christians for five reasons.


First, the Catholic Church has never questioned the importance, inspiration, or infallibility of Scripture. Korey D. Maas makes this clear when discussing the Reformation:


“No contemporary Catholic doubted or denied that Scripture was an inspired revelation, and so an important source for establishing and judging doctrine…. Similarly, no sixteenth-century Catholic doubted or denied that Scripture was an infallible source of doctrinal authority.”[35] 


If this is true, what were the reformers aiming at with sola Scriptura? Jacobson contends:


“[L]et us be honest here, at its root sola Scriptura served as a slogan designed to attack the ways in which the Roman Catholic Church was using and interpreting Scripture. Rather than the Church—or more accurately, the magisterium of the Church—being the final authority on all things, and tradition being the authorized lens of interpretation, Scripture alone was the authority. Putting Scripture in the hands of the people was an act of rebellion.”[36]


Thus, sola Scriptura was largely a Protestant motto rooted in critiquing how Scripture was being interpreted and applied within Catholicism. There is a profound irony in this critique on scriptural interpretation given the reality relayed by James Thomson:


“If the Holy Spirit guides those who seek after God through the scriptures, why is it that there are approximately 30,000 denominations of Protestants in the United States alone, all maintaining that their interpretations of scripture are correct, and many differing so widely from each other that a visitor from outer space would wonder whose scriptures they were talking about?”[37]


The Protestant issue is thus: if not the Magisterium’s interpretation, whose? Sola Scriptura’s implied answer is something between “anyone” and “unknown.” In either case, how can Baptists, Presbyterians, Adventists, Non-Denominationalists, and Methodists (and the many dozens of independent denominations within each of those denominations 🤯) all claim to believe, and yet disagree on, what the Bible says? 


Second, Protestants do not adhere to sola Scriptura in practice. John Coleman Bennett notes how “among all but the most hardline Protestant theologians there is… a grudging agreement (and often much stronger affirmation) to the importance and positive effect of some manner of “tradition.””[38] This has always been true. Indeed, Elowsky asserts:


“Luther, and to a certain extent, Calvin, had a critical, but overall favorable view of tradition. They saw much value in the creeds and the confessions of the church and often appealed to the ancient church… for their interpretation of Scripture.”[39]


Thus, sola Scriptura is and always has been a theoretical but unfeasible notion. Therefore, Protestantism’s foundational doctrine is grounded in impracticality.


Third, adhering to sola Scriptura is not just impractical but impossible. Tradition cannot be avoided. Rather, the decision is which tradition to choose. White states:


“Catholic tradition in no way undermines the true interpretation of scripture…. Nor can critics of Catholic tradition avoid making use of some kind of tradition of their own. On a practical level, the rejection of tradition is not a realistic option for anyone who takes scripture seriously…. The realistic question is not whether we will have a tradition, but which one…. To expect each person to adjudicate for himself each and every possible Christian teaching within the course of a lifetime is absurd.”[40] 


Indeed, evangelical Lutheran theologian Carl E. Braaten concedes:


“There is a structural problem within Protestantism that is not solved by reiterating a thousand times that sola scriptura is the hermeneutical principle of Protestantism. There must be concrete structures within the church through which the hermeneutical process takes place from day to day. In Protestantism, the structures have become shadowy, if not invisible.”[41]


It is Protestantism’s inability to draw (agree) on one tradition alongside Scripture that has resulted in the aforementioned explosion in the number of Protestant denominations. Most refute Tradition while merely supplanting Catholic Tradition with an alternative.    


Fourth, if sola Scriptura is claimed then a practical decision must be made: which Bible? There exists today a comically large selection to choose from. Indeed, Dewey M. Beegle’s identification fifty years ago of the “extremely individualistic attitudes found within Protestantism”[42] seems prescient when considering the twenty-first century Christian’s options at the bookstore. David Daniell’s in-depth study posits the number of English Bibles alone printed since 1526 as “incalculable.”[43] Some versions omit the Old Testament entirely which is tantamount to Marcionism and thus heresy. If Scripture is now ostensibly a marketed product tailored to each Christian’s tastes, what does sola Scriptura even mean?


Finally, sola Scriptura cannot meet its own standard. Nowhere in Scripture is “Scripture alone” taught. While there exist many Bible passages speaking of Scripture’s inspiration, authority, and value, none teach that only Scripture is authoritative. Thus, Protestantism’s most fundamental doctrine refutes itself: sola Scriptura is non-scriptural. Worse, Scripture specifically contradicts sola Scriptura when advocating Tradition (e.g., 2 Thessalonians 2:15 and 1 Corinthians 11:2). For me personally, this was the proverbial “nail in the coffin” for the Protestant doctrine of sola Scriptura when I was finding my way back to Christianity after ~15 years as a practical atheist, hedonist and agnostic and this was one of the primary reasons I could not contemplate attending a Protestant church (and, thus, why Anglicanism seemed so attractive to me, especially as someone who at the time had deep anti-Catholic sentiments and could not dare to consider Catholicism... yet).


The theological significance of these five issues for the Protestant is threefold. Firstly, it suggests he may need to rethink his rationale for drawing upon Scripture if he is to “[a]lways be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks [him] for a reason for [his] hope”[44] in accordance with Saint Peter’s instruction. Secondly, it implores him to consider which tradition he has adopted, even if unwittingly, while claiming sola Scriptura. Thirdly, it requires him to admit his faith stems from questionable doctrine and to wrestle with the implications inherent in that fact. Collectively, these five issues and the threefold theological significance thereof present serious problems for the Protestant Christian’s faith.


And so...?

Well, so what?


I would suggest that, as I have shown, sola Scriptura presents for Protestants a series of both practical and theological issues which are intractable and which ultimately create material problems. They sure did for me...


And, in my estimation, these material problems require the thoughtful Protestant to reconsider the Catholic Church’s position on revelation, his own church’s response to it, and whether the latter is reasonable in light of the former.  


Why does this matter? Countless reasons. One is that in a world increasingly dependent on and even dominated by technology, it is ever easier for us to outsource the most human and God-given of abilities (e.g., reasoning, researching, etc.) to technology without realizing the downsides of doing so. But wars have been fought, borders redrawn, and atrocities committed over the subject matter discussed above, and that was long before technology made it easy to exist in digital echo chambers, to re-write or re-fashion history to say whatever we want and to abandon our reasoning skills for rapidity. People like me, who know just enough about technology to be dangerous, realize how it is perhaps more important than ever to develop our reasoning, problem-solving and fact-checking skills, especially when it comes to that which we are betting our eternal salvation on.


Which leads us to our conversation this week, where we will be tackling the topic of an ever more prevalent and important type of technology: artificial intelligence (AI). We are joined by Steven Umbrello who is an expert in the field of ethics and emerging technologies. Steven earned a bachelor's degree in Philosophy of Science & Technology at the University of Toronto, a masters degree in Epistemology, Ethics & Mind at the University of Edinburgh, a masters degree in Science & Technology Studies at York University, and then completed a PhD on the ethics and design of military AI at the Northwestern Italian Philosophy Consortium. He is the Managing Director at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies and a research fellow at the University of Turin In Italy. His perspective on this topic is enlightening, to say the least. We hope you will tune in!


God bless,


Travis  


P.S. For us all to reflect on...

History of Christianity

Sources:

[1] Isaac Boaheng, “The Wesleyan Quadrilateral and Contemporary Biblical Exegesis,” Journal of Mother-Tongue Biblical Hermeneutics and Theology 2, no. 3 (August 2020): 89, https://doi.org/10.38159/motbit.2020091.

[2] Daniel J. Treier, “Scripture and Hermeneutics,” in The Cambridge Companion to Evangelical Theology, eds. Timothy Larsen and Daniel J. Treier (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 35.

[3] Thomas Joseph White, The Light of Christ: An Introduction to Catholicism (Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 2017), 27.

[4] Francis J. Moloney, “Sacred Scripture at Vatican II,” Toronto Journal of Theology 32, no. 2 (2016): 183, https://doi.org/10.3138/tjt.4202a.

[5] Avery Dulles, “Revelation, Scripture and Tradition,” In Your Word Is Truth, eds. Charles Colson and Richard John Neuhaus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 51.

[6] Aidan Nichols, The Shape of Catholic Theology: An Introduction to Its Sources, Principles, and History (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1991), 165.

[7] Second Vatican Council, Dei Verbum (Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation) (hereafter DV), 2.9, solemnly promulgated by His Holiness Pope Paul VI on 18 November 1965.

[8] Yves Congar, The Meaning of Tradition, trans. A.N. Woodrow (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004), 126.

[9] Nichols, The Shape, 215.

[10] Nichols, The Shape, 170.

[11] 2 Thessalonians 2:15.

[12] 1 Corinthians 11:2.

[13] Nichols, The Shape, 167.

[14] Nichols, The Shape, 169.

[15] Richard R. Gaillardetz, Teaching with Authority: A Theology of the Magisterium in the Church (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1997), 159.

[16] Reinhold Bernhardt, “Scriptural Authority: A Christian (Protestant) Perspective,” Buddhist-Christian Studies 30 (2010): 78-79.

[17] DV, 2.10.

[18] Bernhardt, “Scriptural Authority,” 79.

[19] Muhammad Modassir Ali, “Making Sense of Dei Verbum: Moslem Reflections on The Relation Between Scripture and Tradition,” Academic Journal of Islamic Studies 1, no. 1 (January-April 2016): 23.

[20] White, The Light of Christ, 31-33.

[21] Moloney, “Sacred Scripture,” 183.

[22] Joel C. Elowsky, “Scripture and Tradition in an Evangelical Context,” Concordia Journal 42, no. 1 (Winter 2016): 50.

[23] Jan-Olav Henriksen, “Sola Scriptura—A Hermeneutical Impossibility and a Doctrinal Necessity: Twenty-One Theses,” Dialog: A Journal of Theology 55, no. 3 (September 2016): 190, https://doi.org/10.1111/dial.12254.

[24] Elowsky, “Scripture and Tradition,” 42.

[25] W. Robert Godfrey, “What Do We Mean by Sola Scriptura?” in Sola Scriptura: The Protestant Position on the Bible, ed. Don Kistler (Morgan: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1995), 3.

[26] Diane Jacobson, “Sola Scriptura: Strengths and Challenges,” Dialog: A Journal of Theology 55, no. 3 (September 2016): 195, https://doi.org/10.1111/dial.12255.

[27] Donald G. Bloesch, “The Primacy of Scripture,” in The Authoritative Word: Essays on the Nature of Scripture, ed. Donald K. McKim (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 1983), 126.

[28] Gina A. Zurlo, Global Christianity (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2022), 5. 

[29] Mark Haverland, “Classical Anglican Moral Theology: Unavoidably Non-Ecumenical,” Christian Bioethics 1, no. 2 (September 1995): 201, https://doi.org/10.1093/cb/1.2.200.

[30] Allen Verhey, “A Protestant Perspective on Access to Healthcare,” Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics 7, no. 3 (1998): 247, https://doi.org/10.1017/S0963180198703044.

[31] Elowsky, “Scripture and Tradition,” 41.

[32] Alec Ryrie, “The Problem of Legitimacy and Precedent in English Protestantism, 1539–47,” in Protestant History and Identity in Sixteenth-Century Europe, vol. 1, The Medieval Inheritance, ed. Bruce Gordon (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1996), 78.

[33] Congar, The Meaning of Tradition, 126.

[34] Robert M. Grant, The Bible in the Church: A Short History of Interpretation (New York: Macmillan, 1960), 109-110.

[35] Korey D. Maas, “On the Sufficiency and Clarity of Scripture,” Concordia Theological Quarterly 85, no. 1 (January 2021): 38-39.

[36] Jacobson, “Sola Scriptura,” 198.

[37] James Thomson, “Sola Scriptura,” The Presbyterian Record 135, no. 10 (November 2011): 17.

[38] John Coleman Bennett, “A Protestant Conception of Religious Authority,” in The Protestant Credo, ed. Vergilius Ferm (New York: Philosophical Library, 1953), 133.

[39] Elowsky, “Scripture and Tradition,” 52.

[40] White, The Light of Christ, 34-35.

[41] Carl E. Braaten, New Directions in Theology Today Volume II: History and Hermeneutics (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1966), 151.

[42] Dewey M. Beegle, Scripture, Tradition, and Infallibility (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 1973), 109.

[43] David Daniell, The Bible in English: Its History and Influence (London: Yale University Press, 2003), 769.

[44] 1 Peter 3:15.

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