Monday, May 16, 2011

Non Sola Scriptura

Thinking back over my shift to Catholicism, I find that there were four discrete steps. First, I discovered (much to my surprise) I was already mostly Catholic in my theology. Second, when I investigated further, I found that my objections were falling faster than the price of tulips in February 1637, and realized that the remaining few wouldn't last long. Third, I learned the truth of "you can't go home again" when I found that I could no longer assent to the tenets of Protestantism, most notably the five "Solas." Fourth, those final few objections to Catholicism were overcome and I entered RCIA.

I found that the process went quite swiftly, though not because of my own merits or demerits. I don't think of myself as intellectually fickle, and I'm sure that my persistence in doggedly seeking answers only slightly accelerated my pace. Rather, I believe the process went quickly simply because the foundation was already laid: I was already grounded in the Apostolic Tradition, I just hadn't given it enough though to see how it "fit together" with the other elements of my faith and theology. Once I made those connections, the dominoes started tumbling.

One of those key turning points was on the issue of tradition.  Tradition has long had a bad name among Protestants. Scripture is the heart of our faith and tradition is treated as a distraction, an unhealthy accretion of human error. Despite this, I had already become a traditionalist of sorts (thanks largely to my study of history and philosophy, and thanks specifically to C.S. Lewis). I also saw how absurd the Protestant distaste for tradition was, since Protestants have dozens of entrenched traditions among ourselves: the altar call, the Sinner's Prayer, the order of service, etc. Calvin's Institutes might even make the cut. Protestants intuitively grasped that such things have value, even as we derided them in the abstract.

The other thing that struck me was that the dichotomy between Scripture and Tradition was untenable. The Bible itself is an artifact of tradition -- it did not descend from On High, inscribed by divine printing press on pages of vellum. It is the product of humans, written by individuals with very distinctive backgrounds and personalities, though they all operated under the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Jesus didn't write anything, but His legacy was preserved in the witness of the apostles. It is from those Apostles, from their testimony and their authority, that we inherit both Scripture and Tradition. The only difference is whether the witness of the Apostles were conveyed in written or in oral form. I think it's safe to rank Scripture as the preeminent instance of Tradition, but it remains primus inter pares: "first among equals."

Digging deeper, I stumbled across a third truth: the infallibility of Scripture is not self-evident. Admittedly, Scripture often speaks of the Words of God being complete and without error; the New Testament often references and corroborates the authority of the Old; and there are references even within the New Testament to other books in the NT canon (cf. 2 Peter 3:15-16, not to mention Luke 1:1-2 and the whole Synoptic tradition). But in no instance does Scripture provide us with its own canon; at no point does the Bible list the books of the Bible. Nor does it ever define Scripture as the sole infallible foundation of our faith to the exclusion of all else. Moreover, if Scripture did define itself as an exclusive authority, such a statement would be clearly tautological: simply as a matter of logic, the argument would be circular. If we ever wanted to mount a serious case for sola Scriptura, we would be obligated to rely on sources and an authority outside Scripture in order to demonstrate it.  We must identify what preceded Scripture, to establish how it proceeded from there.

In my next note, I'll return to this issue, of identifying the primary source of Scripture's authority. In the meanwhile, for an insightful analyses of Scripture and tradition, I'd recommend checking out Anthony Layne's six-part series on "The Sola Scriptura Problem" at his blog Outside the Asylum. His arguments have an impressive pedigree within the Catholic Church, so I'll probably borrow some of the same points. Nevertheless, it's still a great resource, and more comprehensive than I expect my posts will be.

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