Rome: Sola Ecclesia or Sola Scriptura? (Kruger)

7C391526-D6D2-4506-A1CD-0FBC96E36A2F (This is a re-blog from March, 2013)

A short while ago I posted some helpful and critical comments about Rome’s view of Scripture by Michael Kruger (in Canon Revisited). Here is part two of that post. The quote is a bit longer than my usual ones, but it is well worth the time.

“…The most fundamental concern [is] whether the Roman Catholic model, in some sense, makes the Scripture subordinate to the church. The answer to that question is revealed when we ask another question: How does the Roman Catholic Church establish its own infallible authority? If the Roman Catholic church believes that infallible authorities (like the Scriptures) require external authentication, then to what authority does the church turn to establish the grounds for its own infallible authority? Here is where the Roman Catholic model runs into some difficulties. There are three options for how to answer this question.”

“(1) The church could claim that its infallible authority is authenticated by (and derived from) the Scriptures. But this proves to be rather vicious circular reasoning. If the Scriptures cannot be known and authenticated without the authority of the church, then you cannot establish the authority of the church on the basis of the Scriptures. You cannot have it both ways. Moreover, on an exegetical level, one would be hard-pressed to find much scriptural support for an infallible church….”

“(2) The church could claim that its infallible authority is authenticated by external evidence from the history of the church: the origins of the church, the character of the church, the progress of the church, and so forth. However, these are not infallible grounds by which the church’s infallibility could be established. In addition, the history of the Roman Church is not a pure one – the abuses, corruption, documented papal errors, and the like do not naturally lead one to conclude that the church is infallible regarding ‘faith and morals.’”

“(3) It seems that the only option left to the Catholic model is to declare that the church’s authority is self-authenticating and needs no external authority to validate it. Or, more bluntly put, we ought to believe in the infallibility of the Roman Catholic Church because it says so.”

“The Roman Catholic Church, then, finds itself in the awkward place of having chided the Reformers for having a self-authenticating authority (sola scriptura), while all the while it has engaged in that very same activity by setting itself up as a self-authenticating authority (sola ecclesia). On the Catholic model, the Scripture’s own claims should be received on their own authority. The Roman Catholic Church, functionally speaking, is committed to sola ecclesia.”

Here’s Kruger’s helpful critique of Rome’s view of the church over the Word.

“…This presents challenges for the Catholic model. Most pertinent is the question of how there can be a canon at all – at least one that can genuinely challenge, correct, and transform the church – if the validation structure for the canon, in effect, already presupposes that the church bears an authority that is even higher? On the Catholic system, then, the canon’s authority is substantially diminished. What authority it does have must be construed as purely derivative – less a rule over the church and more of an arm of the church, not something that determines the church’s identity but something that merely expresses it.”

This sheds some new light on the Reformation phrase, “always reforming according to the Word.” Rome can’t logically say this phrase because it does not believe that the Scriptures alone are the highest authority for faith and life; Rome believes in sola ecclesia, not sola scriptura. One cannot have it both ways.

The above quotes are found in Michael J. Kruger, Canon Revisited (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 47-48.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

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Rome’s ‘Tyrannical Distortion’ (Murray)

 The Roman Catholic Church neither believes nor teaches that Scripture is the highest authority and only source of inspired and infallible truth for God’s people. In other words, they do not teach or believe “sola Scriptura.”  In fact, at the Second Vatican Council, Rome said that “…it is not from sacred Scripture alone that the Church draws her certainty about everything that has been revealed.  Therefore both sacred tradition and sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of devotion and reverence.”  Along with Scripture and Tradition, Rome also says that the decrees of the Pope are infallible and must be revered and obeyed: “In virtue of his office, the Roman Pontiff…enjoys infallibility when he makes a definitive pronouncement of doctrine on faith or morals….”

For those of us in Protestant and Reformation circles, this teaching is absolutely unbiblical and terribly repulsive in many ways.  When we refuse ecumenical ties with Rome, we do so on firm biblical grounds.  I appreciate John Murray’s response (d. 1975) to the topic of Rome’s authority:

“What we do find in the claims of the Roman Catholic Church is a pretentious superstructure, based upon assumptions for which there is no evidence in the revelation God has given us.  The consequence is a tyrannical distortion of what our Lord himself affirmed, and the Scriptures of the New Testament witness, respecting apostolic authority.  The most recent pronouncements of Rome continue to reiterate and enforce the usurpations in respect of authority whereby the basic principles that God alone is the source of all authority, and his revealed will the norm, are made void in the magisterium of the Church, and most particularly in the supreme magisterium of the Roman Pontiff.  It is the irony of this usurpation that in Roman claims we have the most blatant example of lording it over God’s heritage in contravention of Peter’s own inspired utterance: ‘Neither as lording it over those committed to your charge, but becoming examples to the flock’ (1 Pet 5:3).

John Murray, Collected Writings, Vol. I, page 302.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Sola Scriptura: What It Isn’t (Muller)

Product Details The Reformation teaching of sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) does not mean that the Christian alone reads the Bible alone and interprets it alone.  Sola Scriptura does not at all mean we should be lone rangers when studying, interpreting, and applying God’s Word.  According to sola Scriptura private devotions aren’t bad, but private interpretation is.

And historically speaking we probably shouldn’t use Luther on trial at Worms as an illustration of what sola Scriptura means unless we give it a fuller contextual explanation.  The Diet of Worms wasn’t at all “Luther alone and his Bible alone against the Roman Catholic Church.”

Here’s how Richard Muller describes it.

“…It is…entirely anachronistic to view the sola scriptura of Luther and his contemporaries as a declaration that all of theology ought to be constructed anew, without reference to the church’s tradition of interpretation, by the lonely exegete confronting the naked text.”

“It is equally anachronistic to assume that Scripture functioned for the Reformers like a set of numbered facts or propositions suitable for use as ready-made solutions to any and all questions capable of arising in the course of human history.  Both the language of sola scriptura and the actual use of the text of Scripture by the Reformers can be explained only in terms of the questions of authority and interpretation posed by the developments of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries.  Even so, close study of the actual exegetical results of the Reformers manifests strong interpretive and doctrinal continuities with the exegetical results of the [early church] fathers and the medieval doctors.”

Richard Muller, Post Reformation Reformed Dogmatics vol. 2 p. 63-64.

(This is a repost from July 2013)

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

The Danger of Biblicism

Biblicism is a problem in the conservative Christian church today.  By “biblicism” I mean an over-rigid adherence to certain Bible texts or teachings at the expense of context and other biblical teachings.  Biblicism is a cousin of legalism since both are often quite rigid, demanding, and unforgiving.  Some examples of biblicism would be an inflexible adherence to things like courting, abstinence from all alcohol, and insistence on a certain way to run a home (to name just a few).  Biblicism often doubts the value of general revelation and sometimes views the Bible as a science textbook.  I’ve also noticed that many biblicists are self-taught and sometimes do not like creeds and confessions.  Biblicism can lead to many problems in a church’s life and in a Christian’s life.

Terry Johnson has a helpful section on biblicism in his book on the five solas called The Case for Traditional Protestantism.  Here’s part of it:

“Believers must not fall into an unwarranted biblicism which, in the name of biblical authority, narrows the scope of its application to only that which the Bible explicitly states and not to that which it implies as well.  This is a danger when the nature of Scripture is not understood.  There is not a verse for every occasion.  The Bible is not a book of detailed causistry providing answers for every imaginable ethical question.  No doubt some have wished that the Bible were such a book….  Yet it still applies to every occasion.  How so?  It reveals general principles which, to be grasped, must be illuminated by the Holy Spirit, and, to be applied concretely in life, must be joined with reason and wisdom.  The need of wisdom can be illustrated by this fact – almost all of life is lived between the lines of explicit biblical commands.”

“We can summarize our point in this way: The Scriptures are sufficient to reveal to us the truth and will of God when read in conjunction with biblical wisdom.  Biblical wisdom can be defined as understanding the nature of things.  To do so I must know the ‘sacred writings,’ ‘which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus’ (2 Tim. 3:15).

Johnson later notes how a person may know what the Bible says but not really understand the nature of things and therefore misapply the Bible’s teaching.  The farmer doesn’t plant in the spring because the Bible commands it.  “He does so because he correctly percieves the nature of things and acts in harmony with it.”  The wise Christian understands general revelation and special revelation, and conforms his life “to the reality that both books (nature and the Bible) reveal.”

Yes, the Bible is the Christian’s highest authority in all of life, and yes, Scripture is sufficient for doctrine and life.  But that doesn’t mean we should ignore general revelation.  It doesn’t mean that there’s a Bible verse for everything.  It doesn’t mean we can ignore context and flatten out the Bible.  It doesn’t mean we don’t have to use wisdom in all areas of life.  Biblicism sometimes sounds good because it uses Scripture so much, but we have to remember there is a wrong way to use it!  And typically, as Augustine said, the person who has himself as a teacher has a fool for a student (cf. Prov. 1:7, 12:15, and 28:24). So we need to humbly listen to wise counsel and fervently pray for wisdom ourselves, which – thankfully! – God gives to those who ask in faith (James 1:5-6).

The above quotes are found in chapter two of The Case for Traditional Protestantism by Terry Johnson.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

Sola Scriptura, Creeds, and Confessions

From Wittenberg to Geneva to London, the Reformers stressed the centrality and authority of Holy Scripture.  They argued from Scripture that Scripture alone is God’s necessary Word to us for our salvation and for living the Christian life.  However, the Reformers also stressed the need for and importance of creeds and confessions.  In other words, the slogan “Sola Scriptura” does not imply that Christians have no need for creeds or confessions.  Lutheran scholars Robert Kolb and Charles Arand explain it this way:

“All Christians have recognized that sinful  minds and emotions misinterpret the Word of the Lord and twist it to their own devices.  So all Christians always have some summary of God’s Word to help guide public teaching and the congregation’s public confession of faith.  Scripture is indeed a primary authority for most Christians, but all Christians have secondary authorities alongside or directly under it.  Early in the church’s history the practice of identifying the church through a statement of faith, a creed, flourished.

There are, to be sure, fellowships within the larger body of Christ that claim to have no creed but the Bible.  Yet such groups automatically reject certain interpretations of Scripture and guide their people without discussion or contemplation to a specific construal of individual biblical passages.

Whether formally codified and recognized or only informally put to use (and thus often in more arbitrary fashion), these secondary authorities assist believers in formulating their understanding of the biblical message and provide a vehicle for public confession of the faith and regulation of the church’s life and teaching.

“…By the end of the sixteenth century, the majority of German Lutherans had settled on the ‘Book of Concord’ as their standard for public confession, their ‘symbol,’ in the sense of the Greek word used by the ancient church for ‘creed.’  They called its documents [ ‘the Lutheran confessions’ because Philip Melanchthon had named his Lutheran creed, prepared in Augsburg as an explanation of Lutheran reform and a statement of Lutheran adherence to the universal tradition of the church, a ‘confession.’”

Robert Kolb and Charles Arand, The Genius of Luther’s Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), p169-170.

shane l ems

The Ground of Our Religion

What is the difference between the Roman Catholic view of Scripture & tradition and the Reformed understanding of it?  Richard Muller summarizes it quite well in Post Reformation-Reformed Dogmatics Volume Two: Holy Scripture.  There is more to his discussion, but here’s one helpful paragraph.

“The Reformed orthodox stand in accord with the Reformers in their assertion that ‘Scripture is the rule of faith and manners [life matters]’ or of ‘faith and life’ and has, for this reason, been called ‘canonical’ since the time of the fathers.  Scripture must be this rule inasmuch as ‘the ground of our religion and the rule of faith and of all saving truth is the Word of God, contained in the holy Scripture.’”

“This assumption stands in direct antithesis to the Roman claim of the coequality of Scripture and tradition.  In the Roman model, Scripture serves as a ‘foundation to tradition,’ and tradition serves to remedy the ‘deficiency’ of Scripture, inasmuch as Scripture does not contain all the truths necessary to salvation.  Indeed, there are Roman traditions that have no foundation whatsoever in Scripture.”

“What is more, in the Roman view, the interpretation of the tradition belongs to the bishop of Rome: this is directly counter to the Reformed and Protestant teaching, which assumes that Scripture alone is the norm of doctrine and the sole source of revelation, ‘rejecting all verbal Tradition in reference to things necessary to salvation.’  Even so, writes [Edward] Leigh, Scripture is a ‘worthy’ canon or ‘rule of religion, faith and godliness, according whereunto the building of the house of God may be fitted.’”

“The Protestant orthodox interest in religion is parallel to their interest in Scripture as the sole ground of religion: their stress is on the right relationship between God and humanity and on the way in which Scripture and faith in the truth of Scripture offer a foundation not for religion in general, but for right religion, the Christian religion.”

In these paragraphs, Muller was quoting from Edward Leigh, the Westminster Confession, the Irish Articles, and William Ames.  The entire section can be found on pages 345-370 of the second volume of Post Reformation Reformed Dogmatics.

shane lems
hammond, wi
covenant presbyterian church (OPC)

The Fundamental Principle of Protestantism

Systematic Theology, 3 Volumes One of the high notes of the gospel is that Jesus has set his people free from sin’s guilt and bondage, Satan’s tyranny, and the demands and curses of the law as a covenant of works.  Since he has set us free, we are to walk in that freedom (Gal. 5:1).  We obey his law out of gratitude, and submit willingly to him, but we do not allow human laws and traditions to bind our consciences.  Sola scriptura: “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, for man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture” (WCF 1.6).  Charles Hodge explained this in a wonderful way (if you listen carefully, you can hear echoes of the Westminster Standards and Martin Luther in these words):

“It follows from the fundamental principle of Protestantism, that the Scriptures are the only rule of faith and practice, that no work can be regarded as good or obligatory on the conscience which the Scriptures do not enjoin. Of course it is not meant that the Bible commands in detail everything which the people of God are bound to do, but it prescribes the principles by which their conduct is to be regulated, and specifies the kind of acts which those principles require or forbid.”

“It is enough that the Scriptures require children to obey their parents, citizens the magistrate, and believers to hear the Church, without enjoining every act which these injunctions render obligatory. In giving these general commands, the Bible gives all necessary limitations, so that neither parents, magistrates, nor Church can claim any authority not granted to them by God, nor impose anything on the conscience which He does not command.”

“As some churches have enjoined a multitude of doctrines as articles of faith, which are not taught in Scripture, so they have enjoined a multitude of acts, which the Bible neither directly, nor by just or necessary inference requires. They have thus imposed upon those who recognize their authority as infallible in teaching, a yoke of bondage which no one is able to bear. After the example of the ancient Pharisees, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, and claim divine authority for human institutions. From this bondage it was one great design of the Reformation to free the people of God. This deliverance was effected by proclaiming the principle that nothing is sin but what the Bible forbids and nothing is morally obligatory but what the Bible enjoins.”

“Such, however, is the disposition, on the one hand, to usurp authority, and, on the other, to yield to it, that it is only by the constant assertion and vindication of this principle, that the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free can be preserved.”

Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, book 3 page 237 (III.XVII.4.3).

shane lems
hammond, wi