This post will not be an attempt to hash out all the arguments adduced in Bryan Cross’s original review of Mathison, or Mathison’s response, or Liccione’s response to Mathison. I do want to point out a few things, however.
First of all, I think Liccione gave away the barn when he said,
Catholic theologians generally understand Scripture as the divinely inspired norma normans for other secondary authorities, including the Church. That means that, once the biblical canon was formed, whatever was admitted from other authorities had to conform to and cohere with Scripture. No authority may introduce anything as de fide that is logically incompatible with Scripture or otherwise fails to cohere with it. Other authorities are thus norma normata: they are “normed” by Scripture rather than vice-versa.
To put it mildly, this is NOT what I have read in Roman Catholic sources. Generally the partim-partim understanding has prevailed, which is that divine revelation is contained partly in Scripture, partly in tradition. In practice, tradition trumps Scripture. For instance, even supposing a Roman Catholic canon, the argument from Maccabees about purgatory is that prayer for the dead means that the church can help the dead. The problem is that the passage they usually cite has people praying for idolaters. Idolatry is mortal sin, and cannot be something purged away in purgatory, which is only for the cleansing of the temporal punishments of venial sin (I have yet to see this argument answered by Roman Catholics). Therefore, since Maccabees cannot support their understanding of purgatory, Tradition makes purgatory necessary in spite of its having no support in Scripture. By this method of procedure, the church can invent anything it wants, “find” a justification for it in Scripture, and then stoutly say that the Tradition has supported it all along. A very vocal minority at Vatican I, by way of contrast, led by Bishop Strossmayer, strongly rejected papal infallibility, stating that Scripture and history were strongly against it. But that would not deter the pro-papal authority crowd.
The other problem with this quotation is the statement “No authority may introduce anything as de fide that is logically incompatible with Scripture or otherwise fails to cohere with it.” On Roman Catholic principles, however, since the Magisterium can interpret the Bible to say what they want, then by definition no de fide statement could ever possibly be introduced that was logically incompatible with Scripture. Liccione is here actually borrowing a Protestant principle that is incompatible with the Roman Catholic position. There is the assumption implicit in the statement that the Bible has a logical system all its own apart from interpretation, to which de fide statements must conform. This is the very position they accuse Protestants of holding! If the Magisterium holds the exclusive key to authoritative interpretation of the Scripture, then Liccione’s statement is devoid of teeth.
Liccione/Cross also failed to deal with what is generally regarded as the most severe problem associated with Tradition: where is it? As we noted before, Tradition usually boils down to what the current church says. But this confuses the Tradition with the Magisterium. There are supposed to be 3 sources of infallible authority in the RCC: Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium. The more modern Newmanesque version of Tradition, however, collapses Tradition and the Magisterium, thus making what the early church fathers said practically useless. I was somewhat flabbergasted recently when Bryan Cross admitted to me that it wouldn’t really matter if even more than half of the ECF did not believe that Matthew 16′s “petra” was a reference to Peter. This certainly reflects a non-Vincentian understanding of Tradition. But isn’t Trent Vincentian in its understanding of Tradition? I would argue that it clearly is Vincentian. What authority does the later church have to re-interpret what Trent said? And if the ECF’s did not, on the whole, believe that “petra” equals Peter, then by what authority does the Magisterium trump Tradition? Oh, I get it, the Magisterium also gets to interpret the Tradition (read, define it!). Quite frankly, this turns church history, the ECF’s, and the Bible into a complete wax nose: it means whatever the church today says it means, regardless of what it might actually say. All contrary evidence can be therefore safely ignored. The evidence, however, will not be so quickly domesticated. Protestants, it should be noted, do not have to do this. I can freely acknowledge that what is believed today in the RCC can be found among the ECF’s (in a very inchoate form), though I would be quick to point out that what Protestants believe would also be found there. But if you listen to many Roman Catholics, it is as if there no evidence whatsoever, and no arguments whatsoever against their position!
Speaking of Trent, one assumes that the RCC believes that everything Trent said was infallible (and if it isn’t, who gets to define it? And how do we know which parts are infallible and which aren’t?). However, most Roman Catholic biblical scholars today ignore the first article of the fourth session, which states that Hebrews was written by Paul. By what authority do modern Roman Catholic biblical scholars go against the infallible decrees of Trent? Has anyone ever been disciplined for this? This was in the section on the canon, by the way, so an anathema sits on those who do not believe everything in that article (see Denzinger, 1503-1504).
It would be good, perhaps, to go through all of Bryan’s post section by section. Maybe sometime I will do that. For now, a teaser. Bryan argues that the individual is still the ultimate interpretive authority, even in Sola Scriptura, because he chooses his church based on what agrees with his theology. And, if he should at some time choose to believe something else, then too bad for the church. One other thing I did notice about Bryan’s article is that he quoted Mathison’s words to the effect that all Bible reading is interpreted reading. He quoted these words about ten times. But, as Mathison pointed out, he was really using the word in the sense of simply understanding what was there: not implying that what is said is unclear, and therefore has to be interpreted by some infallible magisterium. As to the substantive point about Sola Scriptura that Bryan brings up, I would answer it in brief with these observations. 1. Just because a person disagrees with his particular church about something does not mean that he reserves the right to leave it. The membership vows of the PCA, for instance, require the member to study the purity and peace of the church. This means that if the person disagrees with the church, he will start talking about the matter to the leadership. Most of the time, the issue can be settled in this way. 2. Also, the vows include submission, which is to say that a proper keeping of the vow will include giving the church the benefit of the doubt in the case of a difference. The fact of the matter is that if the leadership of the church cannot convince the person of the incorrectness of his views (assuming the issue is large enough to warrant separation, such as the difference between paedo-baptism and credo-baptism), then the leadership should recommend that the member go to another church. The member does not have this responsibility all on his own. In other words, Bryan’s picture of supposed individualism does not take into account how shepherding is actually supposed to work. It is not the individual who should be shuttling around to various churches. It is the church which should shepherd the people. If the difference is not a matter on the level of importance indicated (take post-millenialism versus amillenialism), then the member should just continue to learn and discuss, and not leave the church (after all, everyone differs on some things), and be respectful to promote the purity and peace of the church. What I am describing, of course, is the ideal situation. We live in a fallen world, where people do not even recognize this shepherding function of the church. And thus, individuals leave on the flimsiest of excuses nowadays, even the color of the carpet! I would decry this form of individualism just as much as the Roman Catholics would. Surely, even Roman Catholics and Protestants can agree that 1 Corinthians 12 would preclude this kind of thinking!